Made it into Russia

Feature Image:  Old lady selling apples off the side of the road.  I gave her some change for an apple — she stares at the coins in her hands and tries later to give it back to me.  Her husband came running over to see the commotion and he becomes the star of the story — and is more than willing for a portrait session.  Below are a series of images from our hotel hallway, stairs and lobby.

I have to be honest, its now my fourth day into Russia.  I’ve had virtually no time to keep up with postings which is an absolute shame — its a blast here in a strange way… Like I’m in Russia riding the countryside — hardly used by foreigners and that recurring thought keeps oncoming.  Pictures and images along the way is proving to be hard since we hardly never stop just to take pictures – the group is just too big and I am missing tons and tons of chances of scenes that would make great shots — this ride is not a photographers dream in that we have to keep moving all the time — sorry about that — When I look back, it will be a shame.

Ok, I’ll take a step back, or maybe two steps.  I’ll try to recount the story of 3 days prior and catch up to today in a very shortened version.

We left Estonia to head into Russia with the goal of sleeping in St. Petersburg, Russia that night.  You have to remember that Estonia not so long ago was the USSR and the tentacles of Russia are there, albeit, the world has changed and Tallinn has become a bit of an Internet sweet spot — for example, its a developer hotspot for outsourcing. Anyway, we left the hotel in Tallinn at around 8:30am and it was a two hour ride to the Russian border.  I’m not sure if we thought it was going to be routine, but anyway, it was a bit of a fun ride although the scenery was scant.  Entering a town with certainly the taste of old Russia – a bit run down, we were waiting in a queue of cars and motorcycles to enter into Russia.  My estimation is that 95% or more entrants into Russia were in fact, Russian.  How can you tell?  They wore clothing befitting a 1940’s culture in America — wide pants with stripes, tighter shirts and I don’t know — it was just wrong — but I’m certainly not a fashion expert — trust me, they were Russians waiting to get back into Russia.  I saw no other Europeans or any others entering.

Moving forward, we went through 3 or 4 different check points, each asking for paperwork, filling out paperwork, fees and the like.  Leaving the Estonia side was one thing — but when we advanced about 50 yards and got to the Russian side, wow, the world got a bit different.  The Russian booths were scrappy green aluminum, tattered and paint chipping.  Blinds inside were all bent and sadly, it was showing us the things to come.  Our group was tagged as having an issue and without getting into details, we brought with us to the border a “fixer” who theoretically was there to fix issues.  Seems that a new rule was just implemented that makes no sense — but that did not help — we waited 3 or 4 hours at the border trying to get the issues repaired after spending about 2 hours in waiting and paperwork for each bike — and thats without the issues that arose.  Spirits were high and maybe I was naive thinking that it would all work out so enjoy the moment of watching the Russian government, in all its glory, do its work.  Anyway, after the sixth hour, we were released into Russia officially.  Everyone got on our bikes and rode about 100 yards to the closest gas station and we got our first glimpse of Russia — and it was not that nice.

Along the ride to St Petersburg, we got our first real glimpse of Russian life and countryside.  I will get into greater detail later, but suffice it to say, it is an impoverished country. Vasily, our fixer kept saying that Russia is not as bad as we all think — things are modern.  Well Vasily, Russia is worse than I had imagined.  Its just a country in a sinking hole.

It took us another 3 hours to get to the main area of St Petersburg, formerly Leningrad and we found our way to the simple half western hotel on one of the main streets, but into in the hub area, still it was sort of fine.  One interesting observation is that the sky was pitch dark and the lights in the road circle of monuments, buildings signs in a vivid white and cars were super bright and active — especially since our hotel was a block from the train station.  Hundreds, if not thousands of people were wandering the streets next to the hotel at 11pm and later.  By the time we got our bikes parked, it was 10pm at night.  Everyone was starving so we washed up, ran downstairs and had dinner at 11pm in the hotel lobby.  It was actually pretty good and it was nice just to park our asses in such a unique town with Russian flags flowing everywhere and very characteristic architecture befitting its former glory in all its elegance.

The next day was a touring day and I hooked up with Charles, the guy from Taiwan.  He is a very good photographer and we both were the only ones who wanted to go on the hop-on-hop-off bus and we took advantage of checking out some sights.  If your interested, St Petersburg is very large, but also very old.  I don’t recall a single new building and likely none of the  buildings in the very large city is higher than maybe 5 or 6 stories so its spread out.  Generally, the facade on the streets are very detailed on each and every building, but most are not in great condition.  As with many old cities, behind the face is rows and rows of buildings and structures behind what the world sees on the street.  Roads are fine and commerce is happening.  I see a huge disparity between the have’s and have-nots in that city – its obvious and in front of you.  Outside the city, inequities are non-existent from what I’ve seen, nobody has anything — so its fair.  Socialism works — fucks up everyone.  Charles and I had a great time running and shooting images.

I’m kind of rushing through the days and definitely missing nuances, but I’ll catch up later when I get ahead.  Both Charles and I took off early this morning on our bikes to shoot some pictures of our bikes in the backdrop of the city and side streets or St Petersburg before leaving town.  It really was our first chance to shoot some images of our bikes in these surroundings so we left at around 6:30am and got back at 7:45am with the entire group.

We left St Petersburg at 8:30am and ended up at an absolutely broken down lodge at the edge of a large lake called Vetratoriya Tver at 7:30pm.  Had I not just looked it up on Google Maps, I would have no clue.  It all looks the same — although to get here, we just had to ride on a broken down road which was my first taste of off-road riding on mud, puddles and sand — I survived.

So I will try to distill the ride today since I am real tired and have to be up early again for our ride tomorrow to Moscow.  In one sentence to describe what I observed during our ride today; “Mad Max Still Lives.”

As we get more inland into Russia, it gets more shocking and worse.  Its like Mad Max existed and the world was demolished in a sense.  Houses for the 500 kilometer ride we did today should all be condemned.  Seriously, if there are 100 houses as a sample, maybe 1 house could be livable by western standards.  These are absolutely all made of wood and none have a roof that is not fractured to the stage of disbelief that anyone could live underneath.  None of the houses were built on a foundation so 500 kilometers of sinking houses.  Should it rain, 100 percent of those houses will get rain inside — in some cases, floods possible.  If it snows, then the air and now with pierce the walls and roof — windows are often missing or half broken.  It really is that bad and I am not exaggerating.  So sad to see this from a country that has potential.  If you think about it, all of the ex-Soviet affiliate countries are flourishing or at least entering the civilized stage; Poland, Czech Republic, the Baltic states….  But Russia is backwards still.  I can’t give a number, but if your inside of St Petersburg, sure there are a diverse amount of automobiles — hardly any motorcycles for some reason.  So they do have some Mercedes, Audi and the like — most are garbage cars, but a few nicer ones like Mazdas, Ford, etc.

Along the ride today, the automobiles were mostly a Russian brand called LADA — probably the worst car ever made.  To boot, most of these cars are at least 30 years old and I would guess some, could be 50 years old — square boxes called cars with dings, dents, rust and very, very slow with lawnmower engines.  These cars were in North America in the 1980’s for a short stint because the price point was so low — but after a few years, the cars rusted and had so many issues, the brand left the market.  But its still thriving here although most are real old.

Roads are not bad at all and Russia is investing in infrastructure for roads.  Other infrastructure, not so much.  Its all in state of chaos and it could said that the older surrounding infrasture was built 40 years ago and you can see a glimpse that at one time, Russia prospered — but after leaving everything to die, it has.  Every water tower is rusted.  All hydro towers are rusted.  Pipes I presume for water are all above ground 6 feet up in the air cutting through everyones house.  I did see probably hundreds of satellite dishes attached to peoples homes, but as with the home, the dishes have been neglected and they are absolutely all rusted and useless and the funny thing, but not so funny, nobody bothers to take down the old useless rusted dish.

Dinner was an almost uneatable Russian borsch.  A small bowl with a dab of maybe sour cream which you mix around.  Red tomato based, cabbage and thats it.  I chose not to eat the huge glob of mashed potatoes because I was getting nervous about the food and some ate like a bony piece of chicken — but tiny.  It all cost nothing but it was not a meal after an 11 hour day.  Oh well, its probably a good look at the things to come.

The group is holding out well — nobody is too onerous to handle which is great.  Its starting to feel smaller but again, when I want to shoot a picture, its still too big to just stop and catch up — the train must continue at all times… Sucks.

The ride to Moscow tomorrow is only 350 kilometers — but I’m sure its still going to be an adventure.

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