A simple conversation between two friends led to us setting out on this particular ride into the unknown:
“I watched that film Enemy at the Gates, about Vasily Zaitsev. He was a Russian sniper in the battle of Starlingrad (now called Volgograd), it’s a good film that! I wouldn’t mind going there.”
“I’ll go with you.”
And that was all it took.
A slow scenic, but purposeful, ride through Europe led us to our first new country to ride for the two of us. Full of the unknown, everyday excitement, that motorcycle travel is, we rode trough the small but beautiful country of Moldova in search of the border with the Ukraine. With no technology in the way of satellite navigation on either the Harley-Davidson or the Triumph, and well before the time that either of us had even heard the term ‘smart phone’. We had found our way this fare with only a European road atlas to navigate by.
Slightly confused, and without a clue what we were getting ourselves into, we crossed an unofficial border into an unofficial country:
“Welcome to Transnistria.”
The stern faced, big brimmed hat, wearing armed guard, said to us as he lifted the barrier and saluted to us as we passed into a country that we never even knew existed.
Shortly after entering this disputed territory and unofficial country, we excited through the border into the Ukraine. Now for the long hot ride across the breadbasket of the ex-Soviet Union, Mick and I are both buzzing with excitement. We both now have three new countries to add to are long list of countries around the world that we have ridden on our English registered motorcycles.
Long straight, empty, neglected roads often lined with sun floor plantations that seem to go on into infinity, lead us deeper into this intriguing, and new to us part of the world. In the heat of summer we ride on, and on, only stopping to try to make sense of the Cyrillic road signs, with our now totally useless European map, and for ice cream, cool water, and gasoline.
We have ridden in Russia together a couple of years ago, so we are well experienced in how blunt and off putting the people can appear to us as travellers, on that ride we learnt that the simplest of things can crack a smile out of these hardy looking people. A few words in Russian from us as a reply often cracks a smile, please (пожалуйста), and thank you (Спасибо), two simple words, throw into a conversation that we never really understood, was often appreciated, and so badly pronounced, that our humble words would bring a smile to the faces of, the hotel receptionist, or the restraint waiter, or waitress, that we were dealing with at the time.
We pull up at a T-junction; not a clue which way! Left or right, it’s fifty-fifty, for what we know neither way could be the correct direction. We have been lost now for longer than either of us care to admit to each other. The small petrol station that we can see just up the road to the left swayed the diction; we are both, also, running dangerously low on fuel.
What happens in this tiny two pump filling station in the middle of nowhere on a roadside in the Ukraine is one of the main reasons that I wanted to share this story (it still makes me smile thinking about it all these years later).
We both pull up, side by side, next to the petrol pump (we are travelling on a kitty system paying for things as double act) this just saves two transactions and helps prevent double the confusion with a currency and a language that we know nothing about. Mick goes over to the pay booth where, a little wooden draw is slid out from beneath the tinted, bullet proof looking glass window of the booth. Mick thrusts a handful of Hryvnia into the small wooden draw and the draw is withdrawn rapidly into the booth (it’s a good job he didn’t have his finger still in the draw). He walks back to the pump under a barrage of unrecognisable instructions that are being shouted at us from within the booth. We proceed to fill both tanks from the same nosily. Mick returns to the booth in the slim hope that there may be some change owed to us as I replace the nosily in the pump. Now the shouting from within the booth has increased in volume:
“I don’t think any change is fourth coming! She’s not happy!”
The prettiest, most attractive, sexy looking, service station attendant, that we have seen in the whole of are travels thus fare came bounding out from behind the locked doors of the booth; she is dressed in the skimpiest, figure hugging, and very short nightclub style one-piece skirts, and she is so mad at the pair of us. In a hail of Russian abuse, accompanied, by much arm waving, and pointing, she disappears around the back of the booth and goes rummaging in one of the outbuildings soon to emerge with a steal bucket. We both look at each other in total bewilderment as this pretty little girl comes marching towards us in her high heels, clutching a steal bucket, and waving one arm while still shouting at us in Russian. She marches up to the pump and proceeds to pump the reaming gasoline that we had, apparently, pre-paid for, into the bucket, she then presents us with our very own, bucket full of gasoline, and then proceeds to wave her arms and educate us on our mistake in very angry sounding Russian.
We are booth having a debate about how we can calm this pretty little girl down, and what the heck; we are going to do with a steal bucket full to the brim with gasoline, when a local lad on a motorcycle pulls into the gas station. The two seem to know each other and this young lad gets an instant mouthful which is obviously about the two European idiots that have forced her out from the comforts of her cool booth, and into the heat of the day, to find a bucket. She is not happy
“I think she wants here bucket back.”
Our new, best friend is trying hard to calm this delightful looking girl down, and between us all, via sign language, we agree that the bucket full of gasoline would be a lot safer if it is poured into this lad’s petrol tank. A funnel is found, and the gasoline is poured into the tank. Now everybody is happy, the young local biker has got a free tank of gasoline, the little beauty has got her bucket back, and she can now return to the comfort, and safety, of her lonely little pay booth, and we can carry on in an easterly direction, after we ask the young lad which way that is?
Another misinterpretation (one of many), which forced a waitress to smile and question the two idiots she was serving, was when we ordered (purely by lucky dip from the Cyrillic menu), ice cream for our main course. It’s funny how we can’t even order sausages from a menu but we can always order a beer (пиво).
We ride on, in an easterly direction, often depending on the time of day and the position of the sun to confirm our direction, deeper into the unknown we ride, past the always present, endless, sunflower plantations that seem to have eyes that follow us as we ride past as their heads turn as they follow the sun that we are navigating by, past police Lada squad cars that are often seen lurking in the shade of the occasional roadside trees, past monumental WWII tank battle monuments, until we reach the southwest border between the Ukraine and Russia.
Entering Russia is so intimidating, but thriving in the knowledge that we have crossed international borders between Estonia and Russia before we bumble our way through and soon find ourselves riding along the banks of the Volga River and into the suburbs of a city that was once completely raised to the ground by the battle that changed the course of world war two.
We have made it to our destination, a corner of Russia totally unknown to us, other than its history which we have ridden here to experience. The thrill of a ride like this is totally about the unknown and exploring the everyday new places we find ourselves in.
The Motherland Calls monument (claimed to be the tallest monument in the world) towers above us as we make our way past Russian soldiers that stand to attention as motionless as wax statues on guard duty, as we walk around the eternal flame that burns in the centre of the tomb, of which the walls of, bare the names of, over one hundred thousand Russian soldiers that died during one of the deadliest conflicts of the war.
The Motherland Calls.
We walk the city streets, sit by the banks of the Volga, people watching, and walk the many monuments and museums of the city. We found Vasily Zaitsev’s sniper rifle, and both felt quite honoured to be the only Western European visitors that we noticed in all the time that we were in this historic, underwhelming, yet captivating city, which the world owes so much too.
With all the sights seen we sat in a bar and had a beer to celebrate the achievements of our ride, and to decide what to do next.
We haven’t thought passed Volgograd as far as the ride goes, we didn’t even think to invest in a Russian map as far as even the planning of this ride, so there never really was much hope that we would know where to go next! South to Georgia was mentioned and a ride home through Turkey, halfway through the second large beer, which was brought out to our table, and the idea of ridding south sounded even more interesting. The third beer swayed it, totally out of the blue; we are going to ride north to Moscow then make our way back through the Baltic countries, and then meander through Western Europe back to Calais and take the train or ferry back to England.
We set out, without a plan, to ride to one particular Russian city, and ended up completing a fantastic loop ride around Europe, riding through a variety of scenery and coulters. In all, on this little venture across the water, to the mainland as we Europeans call it, we visited sixteen different countries. Europe is such a wonderful place to ride a motorcycle.