Good-bye Russia and hello Ukraine

in Border crossings, Russia, Ukraine by on August 19th, 2010

For the next 3 days we will be crossing the Ukraine, this former Soviet republic (gained independence in 1991) is a rather large country in terms of size. It was surprisingly easy leaving Russia after all the schnick-schnack entering. But then the Ukraine customs made us buy some more insurance, interrogated Sabby on her life story due to some confusion over her purpose of travel (“Transit” or “Tourist”?). After 2 hours of back and forth, they finally let us proceed.

There is only one road that leads towards Kiev (some 870km from the border) it seems and it goes on for hours and hours through fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn. Not to mention, the melon trail that started in Tajikistan continues…

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Around 7pm we decided to look for a place along the road to stay for the night and Sabby’s sharp eyes spotted a motel on the other side of the highway.  It turned out that this nondescript motel had some cute little wooden cabins in the garden. So we had our own little log cabin set amidst apple trees.  Interestingly enough, the room rates were based on 1-6, 13 or 24 hours’ stay…guess most guests do not stay long here despite its beautiful surroundings.

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Oh one more update, the landscape became more green and lush about 200km after Atyrau.  Much to MJo’s chagrin, no more camels!!  Instead, he now has a new obsession – road signs. We now have an extensive collection of photos of them in various languages.

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A miracle and a mystery in Volgograd

in Russia by on August 18th, 2010

When we were planning our route, Sabby told MJo that it would be a miracle if we made it to Volgograd and were still on speaking terms. And now here we are, in Volgograd, and still speaking to each other!

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V is for Volograd and we are still on speaking terms!

But that is not all to our adventures in Volgograd, there is still the mystery of the Stalingrad Madonna, a drawing done by a German doctor stationed at Stalingrad in 1942.  It was Christmastime and to cheer up the sick and wounded, he drew this picture of the Madonna and Child on the back of a Russian map.  After the war, the original was sent to Berlin and copies sent to England and Volgograd as a symbol of peace.

When he was in Berlin earlier this year, MJo had seen the original at the Kaiser Wilhelm Kathedral.  Whilst the copy in England is known to be at Coventry Cathedral, the Volgograd copy is said to be in a Russian Orthodox parish somewhere in the city. After unsuccessfully asking our hotel reception we took a cab to the largest churches in town. After an hour of searching through two parishes (and not a single person who spoke any English) we could not solve that mystery.  Anyone out there knows?

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Inside another Russian Orthodox church in Volgograd - no luck here either!

Volgograd was by far the largest city we have been in since leaving India. It took us more than an hour battling traffic (not a concept we are used to) just to get into the city. It was obvious that we were now in a European city in summertime as there were hot women in skimpy outfits everywhere. Welcome to Europe!

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What a change from Asia - women in skimpy outfits everywhere!

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We have officially crossed from Asia into Europe!

in Border crossings, Kazakhstan, Russia by on August 18th, 2010

With its proximity to Kazakhstan’s largest oilfield, Atyrau is a fairly rich city with many expats.  Its hotels cater to the many oil workers, so expect rather steep prices though the prospects of getting a hot shower in Atyrau are definitely much better than in Beyneu!  Another benefit is that you can actually get a decent gin and tonic in Atyrau.  And this we did at the Guns ‘n’ Roses Pub.  In spite of our hotel’s receptionist’s insalubrious description of the place, we found it to be a very cool spot, particularly taking into account that we were in the middle of Western Kazakhstan.

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Cheers at the Guns n Roses Pub in Atyrau!

The next day, we took a little side trip to see the Caspian Sea.  Initially we had visions of swimming in it and maybe even having a nice meal on the beach, a lá the French Riveria.  But those visions quickly disappeared when we realized that the last 10km or so of road leading to the sea was a little-used dirt road.  Hmm, maybe going to the Caspian Sea from Atyrau is not a common tourist activity?  In any case, MJo had some much-missed fun riding off-road.

Afterwards, we rode across the Ural River, which officially marks the line between Asia and Europe.  With that we officially made it to the European continent!
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Asia => Bridge over Ural River => Europe!

It was then a further 290km to the border.  We had to wait a little on the Kazakh side as we arrived at 7pm just as their dinner time started.  It also took us a while on the Russian side as we had to buy insurance for the bike, or at least we think that’s what we paid US$20 for.  Eventually, we entered the “Motherland” en route to the “Fatherland” (apologies for the bad joke).

Riding into larger cities can sometimes be a little tricky for us when we do not have city maps.  In this case, we did not have a map nor a hotel address.  So for a bit, we rode around trying to ask people for a hotel and getting lots of “preyama”, “eta” and “dar” (“straight”, “this” and “there” – the full extent of our Russian fluency). By now it was dark around 9pm which didn’t make since easier but eventually we got to a hotel near the railway station.

But there was one problem – there was no secure parking for our baby.  And even the hotel staff did not advise parking the bike outside.

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MJo sitting outside the hotel waiting for things to get sorted

Phone calls were made, and eventually the owner of the hotel who spoke some English, showed up.  “I have cottage over river. You come with me.”, she said.  Not having any other options by then, we did and 15min later found ourselves in a house in the suburbs of Astrakhan for the night.  It turned out to be a nice place with a large room and a garden. Once again, we have been lucky with finding a place for the night.

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