We were in Ukraine from the 19th May to the 19th September 2003. We entered by train from Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine to Ufa in the Urals, and left by bicycle from Kyakhta south of Ulan Ude to Altanbulag near Sukh Baatar in Mongolia. From Ufa we crossed the Urals and then pedalled down the main trans-siberian highway for 2000km to Novosibirsk. By then we were fed up with the flatness and the flies so we turned south a made a tour of the Chusky Tract, Altai, Tuva and Kharkassia. From Abaza in Kharkassia we caught a train to Irkutsk. From there we followed the trans-siberian highway again, round Lake Baikal to Ulan Ude, and thence to the Mongolian border at Kyakhta.
It is impossible to make generalisations about Russia, it is such a vast country and there is a great contrast between the cities, the major highways and the countryside. Many Russians are extremely friendly and hospitable, usually in the form of inviting you to drink vodka with them. More than once after such a meeting at lunchtime it proved difficult to steer the bicycle! Be on your guard though, poverty is widespread in Russia and on a couple of occasions we encountered people who were outwardly friendly but then stole, or tried to steal, from us. Camp out of sight of the road. Warning: We met two tourists driving who were stopped by the "mafia" and made to pay "taxes" of around $100. Also one story from a reliable source of a touring cyclist near Moscow who was robbed of everything. Once you are in the Urals and further east I think you are safer.
The size of the country makes it hard to talk about road quality and traffic density. In general outside the cities it was low and drivers would try to give you room. When on narrow roads look out for oncoming lorries at the same time as overtaking lorries, they don't like to stop for you! In cities the traffic was pretty crazy, and many towns have trams so watch out for the tramlines. Road quality was often good on the major roads, secondary roads varied from beautiful asphalt to mud.
Hotels in cities are usually at least $40 a night, but in the country we found places as cheap as $3 a night. Other cyclists we met stayed in people's houses most nights but we usually camped. Villages of any size have shops selling staples like tinned fish and pasta. You can buy meat, vegetables and milk from markets in towns but in the country you will need to find a friendly person to sell you some of their produce. We were fortunate enough to find cheap places to stay in all the cities we stopped in. Excluding equipment purchases, we spent on average about $5 a day each while we were in Russia.
Water quality was something of a problem, we had a bad night of vomiting in the Urals after drinking some slightly cloudy water from a tap in a village, and another milder case of food poisoning in Siberia. Ju was quite ill in Tuva, perhaps from boiled river water or perhaps from a dried fish. We took to filtering or buying all our drinking water and ensuring that water used for cooking was well boiled.
This is the number one problem for visitors to Russia! See our diary page for when we entered Russia to read how things went wrong for us. But don't be put off, for every awkward policeman or OVIR official who demands that you conform to the letter of his interpretation of the law, there are many more who are easy going and will not create a problem if it can be avoided.
We travelled on business visas which we obtained with the help of Vladimir Fillipov the president of the Russian Cycle Touring Club. They were multiple entry visas valid for one year which was a bit over-the-top but shows that such things are possible.
Registration involves a stamp put onto the back of the entry exit card (a bit of paper you get at the border) The stamp shows a date and the name of the place you made the registration. There is no limit on the number of registration stamps you can collect. Once the card is full they put them on postits. We met people having stamps ranging from none to about 10.
From what we can make out, there are three 'types' of registration, all resulting in a stamp. You should get one or other of these within 3 working days of arrival:
1) For a business visa, a person from the inviting company takes your passport to an OVIR office in the town the company is based and gets the stamp. (We did not do this)
2) A large hotel (Each major city has two or three of these), takes the passport for an hour or so and makes a stamp. These stamps are made at the hotel. They register you only for the duration of stay. They can be made on both business and tourist visas. This is easy, but the hotel may refuse if you have been in Russia more than 3 working days before you try for your first registration stamp .We got this type of registration, after 5 working days because all the hotels were full on our arrival. It is an easy proceedure, but costly due to you needing to stay in an expensive hotel.
3) An OVIR office can make a stamp covering the whole duration of your stay in a region. This is a difficult proceedure involving lots of cyrillic forms and chaotic offices and trips to a bank to pay a small fee and get a recipt. It will take half a day. Don't bother with this if you have a tourist visa. (We tried this twice, once with success and once without, see details later) A travel agent can make this easier. Some (few) hotels will make this sort of registration. One we heard of was in Khabarovsk.
If I were doing this again I would book a hotel in the same town of my inviting company to ensure it was not full, get registered there, then if it was possible, meet with the company and get them to take it to OVIR. At the very least I would book into a hotel in the nearest big town to the point of my arrival and check by phone that they will make the registration. If that town was Irkutsk I would go to the sputnik office (see address later), they will register for the whole trip in the Baikal area, even if your sponsoring company is in Moscow and you have not visited them. If I had failed to get registered at a hotel within 3 days I would keep trying hotels as I travelled from town to town, eventually one will say yes. If you leave unregistered I have read that the consequences can range from no comment to a telling off to a fine of some hundreds of dollars.
What you can get away with
- Details of our experiences and addresses
All we can do here to help is to tell our story and those of people we met: In general we met four sets of people, none were registered by their companies, all eventually got a hotel stamp or two, with some stress on the part of those who had left it too late. We have heard of no problems for them on exit.
Vladimir (Who got us a visa), never said so but we strongly suspect that strictly speaking our business visa should have been registered by the inviting company in the town that company is based. For us this was Moscow. I think this is what the nasty OVIR man in Ufa meant when he told us to "go to Moscow" and refused to register us. Certainly the staff of the only other OVIR office we visited (in Gorno Altaisk, Altai) gave us to understand that the visa should have been registered by the inviting company in Moscow, but they did register us for our whole time in the Altai mountains area. We never went to Moscow so we never got the visas registered by the inviting company and didn't have a major problem as a result, but maybe we were lucky. We did worry over the issue more than most. Must be the British in us! We left with about 4 hotel registrations and one for a period one month. Nobody even mentioned it at the Mongoilian border.
Others we met
Of the 4 groups of people we met two had managed to get a long term registration, One from a hotel in Khabarosk, another through the "Sputnik" travel agent in Irkutsk at 7b Ulitsa Karla Libknehta. We also met some Dutch hikers who said they had left the country without registering before without problems and did not intend to register this time. We do not know how useful the long term registration is, it seemed a good idea for when we were entering the border zone in Altai and Tuva. See below for details of OVIR in Gorno Altaisk.
We met one cyclist who had failed to register on arrival and once he had been in the country a few weeks he found that hotels refused to register him because it was so late. He did eventually find one to register him though and left the country without problems.
I am pretty certain that if you have at least one registration stamp of any sort (preferably within 3 days after arrival) on the back of your entry/exit card then you will be very unlucky if soldiers, policemen or border guards give you any hassle. If you decide to rely on one or two short term hotel registrations, just say (if you are questioned), that you are touring and did not stay in one place for more than 2 days. At one point Mark was refused a mobile phone SIM card on the grounds that he was unregistered in the town. He got it by returning later and explaining to a different man that he had only just arrived in the town.
This is a form where you write down money and valuables you have, you are supposed to fill one in at both entry and exit, it may be in English.
It is definitely best to request one when entering the country and make sure it is stamped and that you keep it to present as you leave the country. Ask for it from the man who asks you if you have any guns or drugs, he won't necessarily offer it because he may think you don't need it. But with practices varying from one border crossing to the next and rumours of various scams for fining foreigners without deklaratsias or with unstamped deklaratsias, I think it is much better that you do have one. Also remember that the customs man won't have any idea what your bicycle is worth so it may well be that you do need one. We were not asked to produce a deklaratsia as we were leaving the country so they never found out that we didn't have one. We did however take precautions due to the lack of our lack of deklaratsia. We declared $50, and transported the undeclared $100 in the seat pins. We converted most of our money to roubles and declared about 40 dollars worth of it, hiding the rest in the pins again. Apparently roubles need not be declared so they were a safer bet. The dollars we declared were to give anybody corrupt something to nick other than our goods, the roubles we declared were to cover any possible fine due to lacking forms or company registration. We did not declare the satelitte phone (See below). None of these precautions turned out to needed as they did not open any bags or even ask us any questions. Some Germans met said they declared very little money in case it proved tempting to the officials. When questioned as how they would live they said they had credit cards and this was accepted. We saw no direct evidence of corruption
Incidentally, Nathaly declared her satellite phone on entry from Mongoilia and had no problems with it (there is a special tick box on the form for "High frequency communications device" which she ticked. To me the form read that that meant she should have a permit for such an item but she didn't and she didn't have any problems), but she also declared her GPS and had it confiscated. I think if I was filling in the form I would leave the box unticked but declare a "Motorola phone". Everyone has mobile phones and the customs men don't usually ask to see the items you are declaring. We met some German motorcyclists who had declared their GPS at a European border without problems.
The Russian trains are an excellent way to cope with the enormous distances. They are slow but punctual and if you travel "platskartnyy" with a baggage ticket you will have no problems with your bike. Platskartnyy is third class but there is much more room for baggage than in "coupe" (2nd class) or 1st class. I have met people who took their bike into a coupe but I think it is easier and cheaper to travel platskartnyy You get a bunk to sleep on, try to get a lower one because then you can put your bags in the under-bed locker where they will be perfectly safe. The bike goes on the luggage rack above, you will need to remove the front wheel and may get a better reception if you wrap the bike in something, perhaps a plastic sheet or tent groundsheet.
The important thing is to get a "baggagenik", or baggage ticket. These are sometimes sold by the regular ticket kiosks or sometimes by a special baggage office, usually near the left luggage office. Don't be put off by people who tell you that you don't need it, if the "provodnik" (train steward) decides not to let on without it, you will miss your train!
It is best to find out how long the train stops for (sometimes as little as 2 minutes but in major cities often 20 minutes) and if possible take a train that is originating in the city you are starting from. Sometimes when boarding a train en route, you cannot get a seat reservation. If this happens you are given a carriage number and you speak to the provodnik. Usually you will just have to get on and find some space, which can be difficult with the bike!
This is quite a serious problem in the Ural mountains and Siberia from May until September. You won't camp or hike in the forests for long without encountering a tick and we were told that 4% carry the disease. The vaccination against it is highly recommended if you are going to have significant exposure (although the vaccination is expensive and not without some risk). If you haven't had the vaccination you should avoid being bitten by wearing a hat at all times in the forest and covering all exposed skin, even if the result is very sweaty. There is also a tablet which is widely available in pharmacies in Siberia that can be taken as a prophylactic against being bitten. The drug is called Iodantipyrini. The instructions on the packet we bought said to take two tablets (0.2g) daily as prophylaxia and five tablets for several days following a bite. We don't know how effective this is. If I were back in England I would consult the Liverpool School of tropical medicine.
If you are bitten we were told that you should carefully remove the tick (a drop of oil is one way to ensure that the whole tick comes off without leaving its head embedded) and then go to a hospital or polyclinica. You should take the tick with you so it can be tested for the encephalitis.
Trial Sport (www.trial-sport.ru) have a chain of good bike shops across Russia. These are their addresses:
In Novosibirsk there is a good bike shop called "Test Centre", it has helpful staff who speak English. The address is 4 Ermaka St, behind 40 Sovetskaya, not far from Krashney Prospect. Near the Karl Marx metro station is a mediocre bike shop attached to a rather good hiking / camping / canoeing shop.
In Irkutsk there are several good outdoor and biking shops. There is a Trial Sport (see above), Sport Master at 5 Gryaznova, Tel (3952) 200999, Vertical SportMarket at 29 Ulitsa Segova, Tel (3952) 205252, FanSport at 39 Ulitsa Karl Marx, Tel (3952) 202064 and Lider Sport at 32, Ulitsa Karl Marx, Tel (3952) 258054. FanSport also sold fleece and waterproof fabrics, zips, buckles, etc. Vertical had the best selection of bike spares, but Lider Sport had the best tyres including Schwalbe Marathons and studded snow tyres. There is a technical market called "Fortuna" about twenty minutes walk north-east of the centre, it has a bike shop for basic spares and dozens of tool shops.
It is easy to buy accessories, clothing, some spares and quite good complete bikes. We have seen Shimano Deore components. However we had great difficulty obtaining good quality tyres and had to resort to having these sent out from the UK. Sometimes surprising things are unavailable, for instance I scoured Irkutsk for gear cables without success.
In bookshops in the big towns and occasionally by the side of the main roads, you can buy road atlases. Ours covered the whole of the CIS at scales between 1:750,000 and 1:5,000,000, with most of the interesting parts at 1:750,000 or 1:1,500,000. It seemed reasonably accurate and reliable although it did not really distinguish between tarmac and gravel roads. ISBN 985-409-022-1, publishers tel: (Russia, +7) 095 1826053, email: email@example.com.
It is also possible to buy 1:500,000 scale sheet maps of many areas in good bookshops in the cities.
It is quite easy to obtain pay-as-you-go SIM cards in the major cities. I bought Bee-line SIM cards in Ufa and Novosibirsk. There are two problems with Russian mobiles though. Firstly the network coverage east of and including the Ural mountains is pretty hopeless between the big cities, and it is made worse by the fact that there are a large number of cellular phone providers and of course you can only use the one who's SIM card you have. Secondly if you buy a SIM card in one city and use it in another it counts as "roaming" in a similar way to taking your phone abroad. While outside your "home" city calls are approximately three times more expensive than in it, and it costs you to receive calls.
I never really managed to understand the price lists, but long-distance calls while in my "home" city cost about 50c/min, local calls while not in my "home" city cost about 35c/min and local calls within your home city are supposed to be around 10c/min. If you have a balance of at least $50 (I never did!) then you can use other mobile phone networks for about 65c/min.
With Beeline you get GPRS access for a flat rate of about 50c/day. I found the access speed to be around the 500bytes/s mark on average, not exactly fast but fine for email and OK for web browsing while reading a good book! Sadly it only works while you are in your home city.
In a number of the more remote towns (including even Ulan Ude) I saw people using mobiles but my triple-band handset indicated "No network", I surmise from this that the available networks were still analogue, not GSM.
For faster internet access if you have a computer and someone willing to let you use their phone line, www.rol.ru seemed good. You buy a card at a kiosk, mine cost $5 and gave me nine hours use within three months of registering the card. You can then use free internet access numbers in all the major cities of Russia.
Post offices are bastions of bureaucracy. To send any letter or parcel you must write a senders address in the top left as well as the normal address. 'Main Post Office' and the name of the town can work, but a friend's address is better.
To send a parcel (the contents of which will be examined), you have to fill in a form in Russian. Even with a local to help us it took 2 hours to send one parcel in Asha. We were not allowed to post clothes or computer disks.
We received a parcel of bike spares in Novosibirsk through FEDEX. DHL also have a depot in Novosibirsk. This took about a week. We had it sent to the address of a friend of a friend. The agent needed a fax of our visa and passport for Moscow customs, so if you get stuff sent to a depot, it might be an idea to phone the agent when the internet tracking says that your parcel is in Moscow. We paid 40 % duty. In future I would buy as much as possible locally, but tyres are a particular problem. When you receive the parcel, you get a document that you take to a bank, pay the duty and get a stamp. With the stamped document you pick up the parcel.
Russia is a strange country in that some things seem quite cheap and others are disproportionately expensive. So two people can eat well in a cafe for $5, but a hotel room in a big city will set you back $40. An equally good room in a small town in the provinces will cost $10-$15. Many people earn as little as $50 a month and get by only by growing their food on their "dacha". This works for them because food is surprisingly expensive, a kilo of potatoes costs a dollar - making the cafe meal seem even better value. We spent about $10 a day ($5 each) between the cities, and thanks to friends who found us cheap places to stay, about the same in them.
Russian is an undeniably difficult language. The grammar is very complicated but we found we could communicate simple things without trying to be grammatically correct. Young people in the cities will often speak some English. We spent five days in Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine having a crash course in Russian and this helped us a lot. Of course the better you speak the language the easier and more rewarding your trip will be. I often wished I had spent some time before we left trying to learn Russian as we were there for five months (including the month in Ukraine) so I would have had plenty of opportunity to use it.
Here are some cycling terms in Russian:
We crossed these to the east of Ufa, by minor roads. We briefly used the main Ufa - Chelabinsk road but it was busy and narrow and I wouldn't recommend it. The Urals are undulating hills rather than mountains, but quite pretty and very green. In the villages people had rarely seen westerners before, much less western cycle tourists, so we attracted quite a lot of attention but all of it friendly. Our friend Victor in Asha, 200km east of Ufa would welcome any passing cyclists and has a place where they could spend the night.
We joined the main trans-Siberian highway 90km east of Tumen, although I would recommend anyone going from Ekaterinburg to Omsk to go via Kamensk Uralski and not by Tumen as there is less traffic that way. From there we rode east via Omsk to Novosibirsk, then detoured through Altai, Tuva and Kharkassia. We joined the trans-Siberian highway again in Irkutsk and rode it to Ulan Ude and then headed to the Mongolian border. The traffic was quite light except for within 50km of the cities. The road was reasonably surfaced and wide enough for a least a car, a truck and a bike to pass safely. We don't like traffic but we were happy riding it. There are cafes at least every 70km and we stopped bothering to buy, cook and carry food and just bought our meals. $4 bought soup, tea and a main meal for two people. We found that the wind blew from the west when the weather was cloudy or wet, and from the east or north when it was good. A few of the cafes appeared to have rooms for rent but we camped most nights. Good places to camp are easy to find. The mosquitos where pretty bad in the forest so we tried to camp in the open, but out of sight of the road. A head net, mosquito coils (hard to find locally) and mosquito repellent (easy to buy locally) are essential.
We met people who were driving cars and trucks from Vladivostok to Moscow to sell. They bought them in Japan and made a living out of taking them to Moscow where they got a better price. They told us that there is about 1100km of unmade road east of Chita, including 800km surfaced with fist sized rocks. This unmade section takes about a week to drive. Doesn't sound like much fun on a bicycle to me!
Points of interest on the highway
There is a really nice new hotel right on the road from Kamensk Uralski to Ishim (P329), 220km east of Kamensk Uralski. It is by the village of Kamishevka, 40km west of Isetsko, which is 78km south of Tumen. Rooms were $15 a night, we didn't stay but we had an ice-cream there and the hotel looked really good.
There is a hot mineral water bath 100km east from Tumen, great for a free wash! To get there turn south right by the 100km marker, go 1km, then turn left and almost immediately right, go another 1km to a car park, cafe and school, and it is beyond the shed with the water gushing out of it.
Between Tumen and Omsk at km 426 (426km east of Tumen) there is a cafe that has a room you can rent for $3.
Between Omsk and Novosibirsk the road is quite good, fairly quiet but wide enough for two trucks and a cyclist to pass. The surface is smooth tarmac until 200km west of Novosibirsk, after which it is somewhat rough concrete slabs. There were more hotels advertised. I saw them at:
40km east of Omsk by the turnoff for Kormilovka.
90km east of Omsk by the turnoff for Kalachinsk - about $10, looked quite nice.
170km east of Omsk
247km east of Omsk, 20km east of Chani, $5 per person per night
333km east of Omsk, 5km east of Barabinsk
615km east of Omsk, 55km west of Novosibirsk near Kochenevo. Cafe Ouzeri (Lake Cafe)
We found bathing pools at 325km and 317km west of Novosibirsk. See diary.
From Irkutsk to Ulan Ude the road is good and adequately supplied with cafes. By the Lake there are "Turbazas", (Russian holiday resorts - see diary) and we found hotels in Tanhoi (the Baikal Reserve Visitor Centre) and Selenginsk. There is also a motel about 5km beyond Ulan Ude but it is $60 for a room. Good places to camp right by the lake are hard to find because the railway is always between the road and the lake. We found somewhere about 20km west of Babushkin where a track led down to the railway and then we humped our bikes over the tracks (no fences on Russian railways!) and pushed them through a bit of birch wood to the shingle beach. Peg your tent down well if there is any sign of bad weather!
To be frank we found the road from Novosibirsk to Gorno Altaisk rather too busy for our liking, although it was for the most part not narrow. If we were doing this again we might take the train to Biysk.About 100km beyond Gorno Altaisk we lost almost all the traffic and the cycling became very enjoyable, the scenery is excellent (views of snowy peaks in a couple of places) and the landscape changes from taiga to steppe as you get near Kosh Agach. It did rain almost every day but it was also sunny for part of almost every day. We were able to make a round trip of our visit to Altai by crossing the mountains east of Kosh Agach to Tuva. See the diary.
We met some German cyclists later in our trip who had successfully crossed the border into Mongolia near Tashanta at the end of the Chusky Tract. Their website is www.sport-trifft-kultur.de.
If you want to go into the Mongolian border zone, or cross over the mountains to Tuva you need a special permit. The first stage in obtaining this is to register with OVIR in Gorno Altaisk. The office seems to move frequently but in July 2003 it was on the 3rd floor of an office marked in block 109 of Kommunistichesky Prospekt. It took a couple of hours to do, including a trip to the local bank (in the post office) to pay 40 Roubles.
Then you need to get a "proposk" from the military base in Aktash, near Kosh Agach. This states your proposed route through the border area and is your permission to go into the border area. After all this the only policemen and soldiers that we met were extremely helpful and never asked to see our papers.
The road that leads north from Ak Douvrak over the Western Sayan Mountains to Abaza and then Abakhan is perfect for cycling. Little traffic, good asphalt surface (except over the Sayanskii Pass where it is dirt from Km 89 to Km 103, but still pretty good), as gentle a gradient as one could expect in a road over a 2200m pass, and easy camping. The police post near Ak Douvrak checked our passports and visas but there was no problem (and we hadn't registered within Tuva). There is a cafe at Km 84, but once you are on the north side of the Sayanski pass the village of Bolshoi On has nothing but a derelict petrol station. The next settlement is Kubai, it has a tourist complex with log cabins, a restaurant and friendly people. A big lunch cost us $6 so it was a bit expensive, but then it was touristy...
Abaza is a nice town with a hotel above a good cafe, shops selling fresh food and a rail connection with the rest of the world. There is one train a day which goes in the evening and arrives at Abakan the following morning (yes, I know it is only 180km!). From Abakan there are frequent trains to Krasnoyarsk.
The Lonely Planet website and some others mention the existence of a ferry from Sokcho in South Korea to a place called Jarubino in Russia. They never say where Jarubino is and you won't find any other references to it on the web, or on any map. I think it is the Anglized version of the Korean name for this Russian town. Anyway, we found it in the end, it is called Zarubino and it is about four hours by bus from Vladivostok, south-west-wards. The ferry company is called Dongchun Ferry, they don't have a website but you can email them on firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that we never took this ferry, we just researched it and then decided to go through Mongolia.
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