Russia: Hospitality gone to the dogs

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On the road at last. Photo / Rob Gray
On the road at last. Photo / Rob Gray

My spirits rose as the farmer walked toward me down the muddy road, and then sank rapidly as he leapt over the fence, simultaneously releasing two giant dogs, which ran in my direction.

It was day two of our adventure. Early the previous morning, we had pulled open the doors of the container where our bikes had been stored in Vladivostok, electric with anticipation. Fuelled by a breakfast of Russian pancakes (thin and eaten with condensed milk) we had prepared our bikes for departure. Bags strapped down, panniers attached, spare tires lumped on top. The girls at Living Hope giggled their way through a Russian dance, waved goodbye, and we were off!

Our first few days were to be spent winding our way up the coast, away from the main roads. Guided by a Russian road atlas with no topographical indicators, our route took us up mountains and through swamps, the scenery harsh but breathtaking.

The roads varied immensely, from smooth tarmac to rutted potholes. Occasionally we would pass through a small village, with small wooden houses tacked together.

Ancient ladies hobbled along the roadside (every village seems to have at least one such lady hobbling along at any given time) while youths either scowled at us or waved as we sped past.

Our first night was spent camped beside a stream, the gurgling of the river a lullaby as we drifted to sleep. In the morning, a tiny wizened herdsman joined us for a brew, unable to speak even a word of English.

Today, we were looking for a similar campsite, but time was rapidly running out. Our map was not detailed enough to show us which areas were populated and which were likely to be good for camping, and what we had thought was a promising location turned out to be dotted with houses. I offered to venture down a track that looked like it might offer some options.

Rounding a corner, I came across a homestead, and kicked myself when I saw several people outside, looking in my direction. Now that they were aware of our presence, it would be difficult to camp secretively anywhere in the area.

Deciding I had little to lose now, I approached the homestead to see if we could pitch our tents somewhere on their property. I would need to turn around in their driveway anyway, the track being so rutted and boggy that I was reduced to a crawl.

It was as I drew closer that I saw a man advance toward me. His face was expressionless. I gave a friendly wave, hands above my head. Surely he was going to help, I thought. This area was so remote he had probably never seen a foreign motorcyclist before.

Just as I started to relax, the man moved to reveal two huge dogs behind him - one an Alsatian and one a mixed breed. In a quick, calculated move, the man jumped back over his fence, leaving me to the dogs.

At that moment, I wished my bike wasn't wedged in the middle of a deep rut, mud sucking at my wheels. With everything in me, I heaved my weight backward, trying to move my bike back down the hill, desperate to turn around.

I decided that if the dogs kept running toward me, I would have little choice but to charge them, flooring Piza through them and hoping to turn around on the harder, drier ground behind them. Fortunately, they stopped several metres from me, barking and growling until I retreated from their territory. I returned to the others and suggested that we find somewhere else for the night.

An hour later we were still looking for somewhere to stay, growing increasingly desperate as light began to fade. Soon we were literally at the end of the road, the way forward blocked by sea and mountains, with our detour to find a campsite decidedly unsuccessful. Just as we were contemplating our next move, a middle-aged local wobbled up to us on a rusty pushbike. When we explained where we were from and that we planned to ride to London, he astutely pointed out "This is not London!"

The next half hour was tense. A crowd of well-meaning but fairly drunk locals had slowly gathered. We were torn between accepting the offer of accommodation they put forward or leaving hastily - but our options were limited.

Our main priority was the security of our bikes - we needed to know that they would be in a lockable garage, and that our gear would be protected. Managing the crowd that was keen to talk, examine our gear, and drag us in various directions took all of our energy. Their English was as bad as our Russian, and Tom ended up speaking with our host in pigeon German. We knew the situation was far less than ideal, but once we ensured our bikes were safe, we decided to stay.

Incredibly, our host gave us his entire apartment for the night. While it was a very humble affair, consisting of a tiny kitchen, basic lounge and small bedroom, we were very grateful to have a roof over our heads.

Our host spent the night with his brother, in another apartment nearby, willingly offering us all he had. He even gave us four of his six eggs to eat for our dinner.

That night, as I slipped into a deep sleep, I marvelled at this unconditional hospitality, and at how different our host had been from the farmer who set his dogs on me just a few hours before.

* To help Rob and his mates reach their fundraising target for the Living Hope charitable organisation in Vladivostok and for more information on their journey, click here.

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