Eastern Frontiers: Arctic Russia – Georgia – Armenia – Azerbaijan – Kazakhstan

Discussion in 'Epic Rides' started by AlpineGuerrilla, Apr 12, 2014.

  1. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    After a long time of procrastination I finally wanted to start to tell our story of an Eastern European trip last year.

    Together with Andi, a good friend with whom I went to Istanbul in 2012, I headed on a 3-months trip last summer. The places we wanted to see and explore were Northern Russia, the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and a small part of Western Kazakhstan.

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    Here are a few pictures of what’s to come:

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    #1
  2. poolman

    poolman Gnarly Poolside Adv.

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    Amazing, looking forward to more!


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    #2
  3. ShaneBaby

    ShaneBaby Been here awhile

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    Wow yeah tell me more that looks amazing
    #3
  4. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    Preparing the bikes

    So far I’ve had a Suzuki SV 650S, a street bike with sporty aspirations that kept up well. I did a few trips with it, bigger ones including a ride to the Nordkapp and to Istanbul. Also, both Andi and I have been enjoying riding offroad and dual-sport bikes. Now I finally wanted to combine travel and offroad-riding - and so did Andi.

    After a lengthy evaluation we decided to go for Honda Transalps, namely the 600cc editions, 1996 or older. Though the Transalps were far from being desirable bikes the way they originally are.

    While there are obviously better bikes for offroad riding, those were the biggest bikes we were comfortable with riding offroad. We didn’t want to get too light and offroad-oriented bikes, since motorcycle travel always includes a lot of asphalt and sometimes highway riding. At least that is the case for us. Also, the Transalps are kings of toughness, durability and can be repaired almost everywhere.

    Left: My 1996 Transalp, about 28’000km or 17’000miles on the clock
    Right: Andis 1994 Transalp, about 45’000km or 28’000miles on the clock

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    We both picked them up in autumn/winter of 2012 and started rebuilding them soon after.

    The planned upgrades included:
    • Hyperpro Suspension
    • Rally-style fairing
    • Tough and high handlebar
    • Tough offroad foot pegs
    • Diet
    • New paint job

    Stripping the bikes for the new fairing

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    The fairing and light from AfricanQueens needed a special mount for the light and speedo.

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    Installing the new Hyperpro Suspension – this was by far the most important step. The difference to the old suspension is like heaven and hell.

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    Without the help of Mark, our good mechanic friend, we would have never been able to do all the changes. Stripping down the bikes and improving them almost from scratch was an important step towards knowing the bike and its faults. Thanks to him we felt quite comfortable riding the bikes on this extended trip.

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    Time for a test ride in the local gravel pit. Andi, as an experienced dirt rider, felt comfortable immediately and rode it almost like his 2-stroke KTM. :wink:

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    After some more work and repainting, this is how our bikes looked. We were quite proud of the outcome and the bikes felt great riding on and offroad.

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    #4
  5. Blader54

    Blader54 Long timer

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    Excellent beginning! Explaining the choice of Transalp and the rebuilding that you did to make them the optimal bike for your trip is very helpful! Also, your route is extremely intriguing. So many bike adventurers are heading from Europe to Mongolia or farther, a report on a loop ride like yours will be good to read! Not that there is anything wrong with another trip into Mogolia/Siberia etc, just that trips like yours seem rarer at present, and that makes them more interesting to me. Eagerly awaiting your next installment!
    #5
  6. Hotmamaandme

    Hotmamaandme Wishing I was riding RTW

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    As a fellow Translap owner Im in :wink:
    #6
  7. potski

    potski Wiley Wanderer

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    Me too, bring it on :clap this looks to be really good :evil


    Just stepped off my 99 after a little week long 2up jaunt; it did us proud, loaded to the gunwales. They are such a versatile machine.:clap


    Cheers
    Potski :freaky
    #7
  8. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    For the first leg of the trip we took the easy way and boarded the car train by the Deutsche Bahn, shedding off a few hundred kilometers of distance over night from our home town of Basel to the Estonian-Russian border near St. Petersburg.

    I still had to work on the day we departed, and, like always, it took longer to finish everything up. I finished work at 4PM in Zurich and still had 1.5 hours commute back home. Even though I prepared everything a few days earlier it was pretty stressful. Our passports with all the visa just arrived a day earlier, I still needed to retrieve the green insurance card and I wanted to cross-check my packlist. In the end we arrived about 10 minutes before the closed the gates and we were the last to board.

    For the next bigger trip I think I should have 1 full day between the end of work and departure. At least if the departure is a fixed time and date like it’s the case with the car train.

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    It’s funny how after we boarded and tied down the bikes, the train still stood at the same spot for half an hour. Then, when it departed, it just rode for 2 minutes onto a holding track where it waited for final departure another two hours – all the while we could still see the platform where we boarded from.


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    We are both around 193-195cm (6 foot 4/5) and had a little trouble fitting into the bunk beds…

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    A day before we left, Andis Transalp started to develop a problem, sometimes killing the engine while riding or plainly not starting. Our first thought was the infamous CDI unit, although the common problem with the seat bending the connectors wasn’t an issue with our particular models.

    Due to time constraints we decided to look into it in Hamburg. So the next morning, we started calling around to see if any close Honda dealer could help us or had a spare CDI unit around.

    We ended up at a local dealer who could order Korean knock-offs for the next day, so we decided to explore the region and look for a good place to crash for the night.

    There were some floodings in the area (2013 European floods), quite a few roads were closed due to it.

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    Eventually we decided to look for a nice spot in the woods and set up camp.

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    Due to the soft ground, Andi had to lean his bike against a tree – while my bike, with its big plate on the kickstand stood up on its own. :D

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    Sweet german sausages

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    When we picked up the CDI units and tried them out it didn’t seem to make a difference. We bought one anyway and decided to postpone troubleshooting so we could gain some ground towards Poland.

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    Even if you don't expect it, a road will lead you to Rome.

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    Next up: Poland and the Baltics
    #8
  9. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    Shortly before we arrive at the polish border, I experience the first cultural shock. At a gas station, I ask the cashier if they have a toilet.

    "Of course we do."

    She goes on to serve the next customer and I stand there, baffled at what is happening. Defeated, I queue again, every brit would have been proud of me. This time I specifically ask her where the toilet is and she gives me a 30 second answer of the where-abouts, leaving no doubt she thought I might be a bit slow. :lol3

    I'm glad to enter Poland, now I can blame language differences when things become strange.


    The border to Poland is a walk in the park. Like at every EU-border, there's no one stopping you and you're free to cross. Even though this border is not policed anymore, the many buildings and infrastructural elements of former borders are still there, slowly decaying.


    Since we want to arrive in Russia as soon as possible, we just push forward and make it about halfway into Poland between Germany and Lithuania before we take a little side-track and start looking for a place to camp.

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    Oh boy, what a magnificent road!

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    This was one of the first bumpy offroad sections with full luggage - we learn that things have to be strapped down A LOT more than what we're used to from street riding.

    For example, my spare tires slid over the license plate and the wheat was tough enough to loosen up the strap on my side bags.

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    Eventually, we settle at a nice spot at a pond.

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    Andi the fire king. :evil

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    I can never see enough beautiful sunsets.

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    The small pond also means there's lots and LOTS of mosquitoes. For months I have been jokingly teasing Andi about how bad the mosquitoes in the north are and how they bite through jeans and shirts. Thanks for being a good sport and letting me take a picture of your mosquito-paranoia. :lol3

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    We pushed forwards and stopped at a few neat roadside eateries.

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    Of course we had to try the pierogi (some kind of dumplings), a national dish and very tasty.

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    Riding through eastern Germany, traffic has already gotten slowly more aggressive. Crossing into Poland, it’s even more so. Just stick to the right and check your six – then almost nothing can happen to you.

    Except for the few guys in oncoming traffic that will pass other cars even though you're coming their way on a bike. You're weaker and have to yield. The first two times I was quite startled when I suddenly have two flashing lights coming my way, but you get used to it.

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    Eventually, we got sick of the long and straight roads and changed the routing settings on the GPS from "Minimum Time" to "Minimum Distance". For a while we followed some neat little roads through the polish countryside.

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    Riding through these calm landscapes and little villages is very soothing. We already love Poland.

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    While Andis bike stutters here and there with an unknown electrical problem, mine is developing a habit of a loosening fuel screw (where I can switch to reserve) and it starts to leak slowly.

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    #9
  10. fonsecarlos

    fonsecarlos Adventurer

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    :clap:clap:clap
    #10
  11. Marc LaDue

    Marc LaDue Been here awhile

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    Location:
    Hancock Township, Plymouth County, Iowa
    Excellent Reading; thanx for taking us along! I grew up in Zuerich (Glattbrugg to be exact) and visited Basel every now and then. I wish you two all the best, and if wind & weather should ever cast you across the pond to our shores and you somehow should get lost in our great mid-west, remember there's a clean, air-conditioned (and mosquito-free) guest room waiting for you in Sioux City, Iowa.

    Bis Bald,

    LaDue
    #11
  12. cristiano

    cristiano Been here awhile

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    Subscribed!
    #12
  13. potski

    potski Wiley Wanderer

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    In the mountains
    Hi Guys,

    Enjoying your RR, great photos and dialogue. Shame you have had a few small probs with the bikes thus far.
    Looking forward to seeing and reading more and finding out what the mysterious intermittent electrical problem was.

    Cheers
    Potski :freaky
    #13
  14. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    When night fell, we rented a small apartment along the road for, I think, 20€ each with kitchen, living room, balcony, everything. This was our nice view of the sunset.

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    The next day, we had only a few miles of Poland left, the road growing smaller and smaller.

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    Kaunas, the second-largest city of Lithuania.

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    While we were filling up, this old tractor stopped at the next pump. During the 10 minute pit-stop the engine was roaring loud as ever. By the time we left, there was a small puddle of oil at the bottom… :huh

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    We haven’t seen any camp sites since we left Germany and decided to take the turn-off, when we saw the signpost. Campsites are always great for meeting people and maybe there is even some infrastructure.

    We arrived at a farmhouse that had huge grassland for camping. There were no other guests, though the lady was very nice. I think she was pleased and amused to have us as guests and invited us for a coffee.

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    It even had a small pond for a short wake-up dip in the morning.

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    After a small meal of pasta and tomato sauce it was night-time.

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    While we were packing our stuff in the morning, the neighbors turned up and took us for a short ride. They were ethnic Russians living in Lithuania and had just finished building some huts to take guests and wanted to show us around.

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    Before we could enter the premises, they had to tether their huge and furious dog. :D

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    It took some persuasion for them to let us go. Even though the huts were nice we really had no intentions of staying.

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    Soon, we reached Latvia, another country we’d only see from the main roads, unfortunately.

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    Lesson learned: a white front is arduous to keep clean with all the freaking mosquitoes.

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    We stopped at a bus stop in a small town for dinner when it started to rain. After a while, we were surrounded by a few inquiring locals. One of the guys was intrigued when he learned that we were riding to Murmansk. He was stationed there some 30 years ago and suggested us to check out Severomorsk, just north of Murmansk.

    Since Russia’s Northern Fleet is stationed there it’s a closed town, only open for locals living and working there. He was insistent that it’s possible to go there. It is not, though.

    He was a little drunk and got all pushy. And how much does he know about the current status when he’s still calling everything the Soviet Union and referring to St. Petersburg as Leningrad? :lol3

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    When the sky cleared up, we packed up and left. Soon after, we found ourselves on a nice gravel highway. We opened up the throttle and sped over the nice and wide gravel road, sometimes reaching 120km/h (or 75mp/h). Closely followed by a local in his pickup truck, probably being limited by our slow riding.

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    We took another short side trip through the woods to have some fun.

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    When coming around a corner I saw Andi lifting his bike out of a ditch – as he said he changed into the wrong gear and missed the turn. :lol3

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    Estonia. Again, we didn’t really see a lot besides the main roads. Though what struck us was how different Estonia is from Lithuania and Latvia. While the latter seem very Eastern European, with bumpy roads, shabby cars and decaying buildings, Estonia was different. It felt more like Finland. Smooth roads, clean small towns and modern bars and restaurants along the road.

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    In the evening we reached Narva at the Estonian-Russian border and rented a small hut at a local campsite. The Russian border was to be crossed next day in the morning.

    This is our route so far:

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    For the Estonian side, there is an online queuing in place, where you have to register in advance (or at the border waiting area) and pay a 1€ for processing it (credit cards only).

    https://www.estonianborder.eu/

    For all vehicles, there are queues in place, sometimes with waiting times of a couple of days if you didn't reserve in time. But since this is Eastern Europe, motorcycles as always get preferential treatment. That means you can take any spot you like – no queue. :D You just pick a time and show up at the border waiting area. NOT the border, as we did!

    You first have to show up at the border waiting area (left), where you will register and have to wait for your slot. On motorbikes it’s only a formality. We went there, got some stamps and then could ride to the border. We talked to some German guys in RVs, who told us they waited for over 16 hours now. They did only reserve a place in the queue once they arrived here.

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    Approaching the Russian border I felt the same tremble and butterflies in the stomach as I did two years earlier. But this time, not out of a little anxiety and fear of the unknown. This time, with some knowledge of the Russian language on board and the right bike to experience every road we wanted to, we were excited for what’s to come.

    The last few days have only been about making distance, getting into travel mode. Now – it counts.
    #14
  15. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    Basel, Switzerland
    Thank you everyone for following our trip, glad to have you on board. This report will take a few weeks to finish so, please, be seated. :deal

    Thank you very much, Blader54. A Siberian or even Mongolian trip surely is a goal for me, though I'm not in a hurry. First, I want to explore what's closer to us and gain some experience. And if we went to Mongolia on the first trip - I don't know if I could be so excited for countries that are closer and more similar of what we're used to in Europe. Though I'm following most ride reports on here about the Stans/Russia/Mongolia and dream of one day going there! If it weren't for ADVrider as inspiration, I don't know if this trip would have happened.

    Ciao Marc, if I may call you that. Thank you for the invite, I will come back to it if we're ever in your area. The same of course applies to you (and every other advrider for that matter) - my apartment is open to everyone who makes it to Switzerland. The Alps are only about two hours away from here. :D

    Hi Potski, thanks for following - I don't want to spoil anything, but there will be more about it in the next installment. Stay tuned.
    #15
  16. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    Location:
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    The border was pretty straightforward - for a Russian border.

    Leaving Estonia and thereby the European Union was easy. The border follows the Narva River and you cross it via this bridge (Russia being on the right bank):

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    (Image source: Wiki Commons)

    On the other side of the bridge, there was a closed barrier - a шлагбаум ('shlagbaum') in Russian, though it's an exact copy of the German word Schlagbaum.

    The barrier was closed and so we waited on the bridge for a while. Behind us was a serious looking guy. Suit, shades and the typical Slavic serious face. For the whole 20 minutes he waited behind us he let the engine run. When he finished reading his newspaper he got out, shouted a few words at the guards and they began letting people through.

    That was the first "Only in Russia" moment of many to come.

    After the usual bureaucratic forms, tactical wait times and fetching stamps here and there we entered Russia on our three months visa. :clap

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    First, we wanted to take a look at the old Krasnaya Gorka fort, a coastal artillery fortress 70km west of St. Petersburg. It was used to defend Petrograd during Russian Civil War and Leningrad during WW2, which is now known as St. Petersburg.

    The most important piece of machinery is this huge railroad gun.

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    Of course we had to climb it!

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    View of the Gulf of Finland

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    Somewhere in the woods we found a small hut with an old Stalin (?) bust. The cats liked him, especially as their place of urination.

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    #16
  17. achesley

    achesley Old Motorcyclist

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    Location:
    Jennings, Louisiana
    Thanks for posting and the pictures. Looks to be an interesting trip. For sure will be following your journey. :clap:clap:clap
    #17
  18. scottyaustria

    scottyaustria Adventurer

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    Sep 27, 2010
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    Tirol / Austria
    hoi zäme!

    holly crap....its the two swiss boys again...good to see a new ride report of you two - I love you RR's and especially the vidsos ;) I hope you will post some...
    #18
  19. moto rrad

    moto rrad ADV n00b

    Joined:
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    German land
    :clap looking forward to more, big thumbs up !
    #19
  20. AlpineGuerrilla

    AlpineGuerrilla Been here awhile

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    As one user pointed out, the bust in the last picture is Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik revolutionary and head of state from 1919 to 1946. Still to this day, the city of Kaliningrad (a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania at the Baltic Sea) is still named after him.

    Anyway, after this short excursion we made our way towards St. Petersburg. The ride was very refreshing; the roads were in perfect condition. It felt great being in Russia again. A few cars honked and waved at us on the highway. It’s funny how incredibly cool a bike looks with off-road tires packed on top of the luggage, even when it’s immensely impractical. :lol3 Later, without the tires on the back, nobody honked at us anymore.

    mbravo, an ADVrider from St. Petersburg gave me a few addresses of cheap hotels and we were riding towards one. Strangely, we couldn’t find it, even with the GPS, so we decided to head to the bike shop where we wanted to work on the bikes. As it was still early afternoon, we’d look for an accommodation later on.

    I found a bike garage/shop in the city center (near Nevskij Prospekt) on bikepost.ru, so we went there. The guys were very welcoming and gave us a small room where we could change our tires and prepare the bikes.

    Outside of the shop in an old industrial area.

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    We got to work and changed our tires from the old road tires to a combination of Michelin T-63 rear and Desert front.

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    Since my chain was still too good to trash in Switzerland, I carried a spare kit and had it changed by the guys.

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    They had some cool stuff inside of their garage. The lower image says: Can’t ride a motorcycle in the crisis? We’ve got an idea!

    Before – After

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    This one says:

    You have to ride an uncomfortable car due to long repairs? We will repair fast!

    Before – After

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    Outside, there were some old cars with funny stickers on them. Red on yellow says: Do you think it's easier to fly on a broomstick?

    The one on the window I can’t decipher anymore, only the last word saying Schumacher.

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    Note the Mercedes sticker

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    Around the corner there was a hostel that is run by friends of the shop, the Mozaika hostel. We stayed there for a few nights and met another biker, a guy from far-eastern Vladivostok on a trip to his native Belarus. This was his bike.

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    So, for anybody looking for a cheap and good place to stay in St. Petersburg (and work on the bike), here’s how to find it:

    You can only enter the industrial are from point A at Ligovskij Prospekt. It’s about 200m towards Moscow Train Station (Московский вокзал) from Hotel Ibis, you can see the small entry here on Google Streetview. HOWEVER, the gate is closed for vehicles during the night, so you have to arrive by day.

    Mozaika Hostel is at B, and you can choose from different rooms ranging from 500 Rubles (10€/14$) to 2000 Rubles (41€/57$) a night. It is probably advisable not to park the bike out front but to ask Moto-M (point C on the map below) if you can park your bike with them. It’s a 30 seconds footwalk away.

    Click on the map to have it open in Google Maps for better browsing.

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    We roamed through St. Petersburg a bit and I found these funny souvenirs in a small shop - US dollars as toilet papers and Russian rubles as napkins. What are they trying to convey? :D

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    I went to look for a barber shop to get my hair cut and eventually got my new Russian style haircut.

    Funny side note about the Russian language: A barber shop in Russian is called a парикмахер (parikmakher), which stems from the German Perückenmacher. It literally means Wig maker, which is how barber shops were called in Germany a few hundred years ago, when the Russians imported the word into their language. Similarly, a sandwich is called a Бутерброд (Buterbrod) which comes from the German word Butterbrot, literally Butter bread. In Russian, though, it now refers to all kind of sandwiches, no matter what’s on top.

    On my way back, I came upon a car crash and will post the pictures to reinforce the stereotype: :evil

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    The big Russian cities have quite a problem with parking spaces and wild parking. Often, at the side of the road, one or even two lanes are fully blocked by cars parking for a few minutes. It was only once we saw a concerted effort to remove parking violators.

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    Another (hopefully) interesting side note: In Moscow there is a youth organization called СтопХам (stopkham, meaning something like “stop the dork”), which hunts illegally parked cars, urges the drivers to remove them immediately or they put a huge sticker on the windshield, saying “I don’t care at all – I park where I want”. A few people react quite irate and for our entertainment, they upload some of the stuff to YouTube with English captions. It’s an immense amount of fun:

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    Here&#8217;s the rest of the videos (some with English subs): StopXAM on YouTube


    Well, enough of the cultural excursions. In the evening, we met up with Lenny, whom I met two years earlier when I was in St. Petersburg the first time and went for a drink.

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    It was a lot of fun hanging out with him again and getting to know him better. He told some interesting stories from his army times in Arkhangelsk, a city 1300km north-east of Piter. The contents of the discussions are a bit dim in my memory, not only due to the many months that since have passed. :freaky

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    After a lot of Vodka, Beer and a Shawarma (some variation of Kebab) we went back home to the Hostel. In the summer months, it never gets completely dark in St. Petersburg, due to the proximity of the Arctic Circle &#8211;called white nights.

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    After another day of rest and a bit of sight-seeing we picked up our bikes at the shop. Nikita on the left figured out what the electrical problem was &#8211; there was a short-circuit on the side-stand switch that shut off the engine when it wrongly thought the side-stand was down. We were very thankful for his help, though he only charged a minimal amount for the few hours he put into troubleshooting. :clap

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    After our fare-well with the guys we packed our stuff, did a photo op with an Indian traveller and went on our way.

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    St. Petersburg &#8211; thanks for having us. We&#8217;ll be back someday.
    #20