20th - 27th May 2003
The train from Dnepropetrovsk arrived in Ufa in the early hours of the morning. To our amazement and delight we were met off the train by Rasheed, a friend of Robert's, who in turn is a friend of Vasser in Dnepropetrovsk. He piled our baggage into his car, chartered a mashrutka minibus taxi to take our bikes, and we were soon in the lobby of the hotel Rossia where we hoped to spend the night and get our visas registered. At this point things began to go wrong because we'd failed to make a reservation and the hotel was full. Apparently there was a conference on and every hotel in town that could register visas was full.
Rasheed kindly took us back to his flat where we spent what was left of the night. In the morning between work he took us to the OVIR office where we hoped to register our visas. We had been clearly told that we "must register with OVIR within three days of arrival in Russia", but the OVIR office didn't want to know and told us to go to Moscow...
From Rasheed's flat we were taken to another friend of Robert's, Ruslan, who had a bit more space. We booked the next available room in hotel Rossia (four days away) and went to an internet cafe to research our problem. There we discovered that we should have insisted on having a Deklarisat when we crossed the border because the border guards on the Mongolian border have a habit of relieving you of your foreign currency if it has not been declared. Things were getting worse.
Happily at this point Ruslan packed us off to Asha to see his friend Victor and we tried to forget about the bureaucracy.
Victor runs a cycling club for the kids in Asha, he also builds his own recumbent bicycles and tricycles and is a totally cool guy. He enlisted Kera and Olga (the two girls in the photo above) to translate for us and we spent two days cycling, hiking and caving with him.
We stayed in his "tourist hotel", which sounds very grand, but tourist here means people like us, not rich Americans, so it was a room in his club, which is in the basement of a block. It reminded us of the NPC caving hut in the Dales and was the one place we've stayed where you were not expected to remove your shoes on entry!
In the evening we had a Banya, the temperature was an unbelievable 100°C, but being flaggelated with birch branches is more enjoyable than you might think. Then some vodka was consumed and we visited Olga's house and listened to his Beatles collection.
We spent one more night at Ruslan's and then the next day we went to the hotel Rossia and finally got the visas registered. The registration is late of course but I don't think that will matter. We took the opportunity of being in the centre of Ufa to visit some shops and bought a complete set of new tyres to replace our slicks. The slicks are good for tarmac but we want the flexibility to ride tracks. In the bike shop we met a student who spoke good english so we kidnapped him to come to the airport with us and talk to the customs people about our lack of a Deklarisat.
He was extremely useful and through him we discovered that Russian customs operate on a "Green corridor" procedure, meaning that if you have nothing to declare to don't get a Deklarisat. In other words the lack of a Deklarisat was normal procedure and should not cause us a problem when we leave.
Next day we had been invited to cycling competition organised by Ruslan and attended by Victor's cycling club. It was quite unlike anything we'd seen before, a kind of obstacle course for bicycles:
We had a go on a borrowed mountain bike - it was jolly difficult! Afterwards there was prize giving and we were awarded a prize for something - maybe we had won the "Foreigner class". Then the lads demonstrated their skill:
In the evening we caught the train back to Asha with Victor and his team. As the sun was setting I climbed the hill behind Victor's club and took this photo of Asha. You can see the blocks where everybody lives, and surrounding them the dachas where people grow vegetables.
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