Written by Callie
After being whisked 150 kilometers over sodden, thawing swamplands, our Gazprom helicopter deposited us in a culture-shock inducing city: Sovietsky. We lugged our ski gear through town, feeling hot, crowded and tempted by all the grocery stores and fast food shwarma kiosks. We left our things in a hotel and strolled to a pizza restaurant where I accidentally ordered us four milkshakes, which were downed happily. At this point, we were preparing ourselves for a 1,000 kilometer hike to get to the source of the Ural River, and headed to the post office to ship our ski gear home.
Dmitri, the post officer manager, spoke English and was fascinated by these dirty foreigners sending skis to the UK. He invited us to the local radio station to do an interview. After describing how Charlie and I met, bicycle touring through Central Asia, he asked us if we planned to continue from Sovietsky by bicycle. Something seemed to click, and we looked at each other as if to say, “I can’t believe we didn’t think of that earlier!” Perhaps because we already planned to cycle the last leg of our trip, from the Caspian Sea to Istanbul, the idea of cycling this intermediate section hadn’t crossed our minds. Suddenly, the prospect of walking 1,000 kilometers along busy roads seemed ludicrous. Bikes sounded so fast and wonderful. So, Dmitri made it his mission to help us. He drove us to a bike shop from where, bikes purchased, gear strapped awkwardly on (we hadn’t bothered purchasing panniers for this relatively short ride), we set off down the highway.
At this point, late May, it was still cold, and though we’d finally and officially left the land of frozen rivers, skis and mountains, we were still in Siberia. We woke one morning to a blanket of snow on our bicycles, and decided to take a rest day. Travel felt so speedy! After the monotonous swishing of our skis underfoot, sailing up and down paved roads on our bicycles was glorious. 100km in a day was a walk in the park.
Oh, I forgot to mention that, feeling budget-conscious, we had purchased single speed bicycles. That’s right, those basic, one-cog machines that you rode on as a child, where you have to pedal backwards to engage the brakes. Armed with these simple machines, we took on the hilly highways of the Ural region, headed to the large city of Ekaterinburg. We only had to push the bikes up one hill, but there were times when I felt I would rip my bike apart with the sheer force of pulling upwards on the handlebars while attempting to rotate the pedals.
We cycled through picturesque, quiet villages, with shoddy wooden homes and fences painted in peeling shades of blue and green. These villages, away from the mountains, felt different to the small, icy towns of the Artic. Many buildings in the Arctic were pre-fabricated, plastic-y monstrosities with rotting concrete cores. They were cookie-cutter and usually bright blue. The villages felt more rustic, traditional and bucolic, and most importantly boasted village shops with well-stocked ice cream freezers. However, they were undoubtedly poor. The inhabited homes were cared for but in decay. One in three houses was a tilting ruin. There seemed no possible commerce or employment beyond tending the small cabbage and potato patches by each house. Villagers used horse and cart to carry firewood and haystacks along the mud roads. It struck us as jarring to see such impoverished white communities technically within “Asia”. This observation further led us to question our preconceptions about race, region and prosperity.
We pedalled about 1,000 kilometers in 10 days on our single-speed bikes, and noted that it had taken us nearly three months to travel the same distance, albeit up and over mountains, on our skis. We had covered some 2,000+ kilometers of the Eurasian “border”, when we cycled into Chelyabinsk. From there, we planned to organize logistics for the much-anticipated river leg.
We were lucky enough to be welcomed in Chelyabinsk by Andrey and Nata, who we met via the cycle tourist website, Warm Showers. Andrey, a Brompton-folding-bike enthusiast, led us through the streets of Chelyabinsk to a cozy apartment that Charlie and I were to have all to ourselves! Andrey and Nata had us over for meals and tea, and guided us around town.
Andrey proved logistically invaluable, and even introduced us to a friend who was willing to sell us his kayak. We were driven to a lakeside dacha, a summer-house, where we inspected our new tandem, inflatable kayak, and were served homemade booze and hand-harvested honey by a beaming old man who once led mountaineering expeditions in the Tien Shan.
Andrey was keen to join us in a final bit of cycling, to find the source of the Ural River, about 200 kilometers away. We planned to cycle from the source to a navigable stretch of river, where a friend of Andrey’s would meet us in a car, and we would swap out the kayak for the bicycles. Everything came together beautifully!
We spent three days cycling and camping with Andrey, and the company was nice and novel. It was starting, for the first time, to feel holiday-like, and we spent evenings around a campfire, composed mostly of smoky logs to fend off mosquitoes, which seems to be a summer Russian tradition. The final bit of road to reach the source of the Ural River involved some muddy, rocky, off-roading which tested the limits of our single-speed, loaded bikes. We ditched the bikes and gear in some bushes and walked the final 15 kilometers to reach the source of the Ural. A small metal bridge spanned the gladed spring and labelled each side as Europe and Asia respectively.
Back on the bikes, we cycled for one more day to the point where we thought the river would be wide enough to paddle down. Camped beside the river, with our kayak next to the tent, we said goodbye to Andrey and prepared to put on the river.
Many photos kindly supplied by Andrey