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я лублю россию

We landed in Novosibirsk to find it cloudy and threatening rain. We filed off the Air Astana propeller plane and walked down the stairs and onto the runway. The first thing we noticed was that this was a new climate. It was cool and fall-like, new Englandy even. We climbed onto a bus with our fellow travelers, and a ever so slightly grinning fellow wearing a bright white captain’s hat and white gloves piloted the thing across the jet way and over to the terminal.

We had made friends with a fellow on the airplane, another Mongol Rallier, who had suffered a tough accident, in which the entire drive train of their Ford Transit had completely disintegrated somewhere in Western Kazakhstan. He was headed now to Novosibirsk to meet up with some other Mongol Rally participants in hopes of Still making it to Ulaanbaatar.

He spoke no Russian and had never been to the country before, so we accompanied him over to the entry card filling out booth, to tackle the issue of filling out the forms as a team. They were, of course, only in Russian, and I was struggling to figure mine out when a starchy and immaculately uniformed woman came over, demanded to see my Russian visa, and then low and behold, filled out the entire form for me in a few minutes flat, all in beautiful cursive Cyrillic. How’s that for service!

The entry process was completely painless, and performed by a strikingly beautiful woman, who welcomed me to Siberia in Russian before stamping my papers and handing them back to me.

On the other side of passport control, our luggage was already waiting for us. A few men with adorable trained drug sniffing dachshunds were wandering around the place. As I headed over to pick up my bag, one of them came over to me with his dog and gave me a quick solute. “May I?” he asked in Russian. “Of course,” I replied. The little chocolate covered guy then proceeded to stick his nose up under the lip of my pack, tail just whipping around like mad. “Ok. Thank you.” The man said, and flagged me on towards customs, which was also a walk in the park. I put all my luggage through a old Russian-made X-ray scanner with plenty of Dr. Who-esque lights and readouts on it, and then walked directly out the large electric sliding doors, which had been jammed by a piece of triangular wood to be always open.

Outside it was brisk, and overcast. I looked out on a small parking lot, a military base, and some big stretches of pine forest. The air was clean and crisp. My goodness it felt great to be in Siberia. Cab drivers began coming up to me and asking if I needed to get into Novosibirsk. “I’ve got a bicycle, so no need.” I replied.

“And where are you hiding a bicycle?” they asked. I patted the bag slung over my shoulder.

“Just watch this.”

Scott soon exited the facility in similarly high spirits “I feel like I’m in Germany!” he exclaimed and we began to unfold and reassemble the cycles. As we did so, we began to collect a crowd around us of interested cab drivers. My Russian was getting better, and now that we’d spent that day in the Mountains outside of Tashkent with Shoney’s friends, I knew enough Russian swear words to understand what they were saying, and most of it was pretty flattering.

As I worked, I joked around with them and talked about the cycles, where we’d ridden them so far, how the gears and internal hub transmission worked, and about our plans in Siberia. They seemed to be generally not only approving, but dare I say… respectful?

I realized, as I chatted with these guys that it was the first time we had collected a crowd of interested people around us in some time. It was the first time people had showed interest in the cycles since Shymkent, or even back in Uzbekistan. And it felt great. I found myself remembering why I love AsiaWheleing, why I love traveling and why cycling new cities is such an amazing way to see them.

I had been worried for a moment that Siberia would be as grumpy as the northern Kazakh cities had been, but thanks be to Jah this was proving not the case.

And so it was with a chorus of “good lucks” from the gallery of cab drivers that we hopped onto the cycles and headed down the road. We got another small salute from the guard at the gates to the airport. I asked him the way to Novosibirsk city center as we rolled by, and he directed us onwards, calling out “Maladietz,” which means more or less “way to go, man!” or “Good show, old boys!”

And then we were wheeling. And it felt great. It was a totally new climate and a new landscape. After being in either steaming Jungles or dry deserts for the past 8 months, it felt great to be in a temperate zone, like coming home for the holidays.

The roads were decent, but there was no shoulder, and certainly no bike lane. In fact, during the entire 20 km ride into Novosibirsk, we saw perhaps one other fellow on a bike. Wheeling, it seemed, would not be popular pastime here in Russia. Luckily, traffic was not too dense, and the drivers on the road were so surprised to see two fellows in Vietnamese motor cycle helmets riding fully loaded down with packs that they gave us plenty of room.

We stated to hit the outskirts of Novosibirsk and stopped to confirm our trajectory again, this time at a bus stop in one of the more far-flung suburbs. I had an interaction with a local that was far from the Indonesian smile or the cheerful vibes of Laos, but it was not openly hostile and combative the way my interactions had been in Kazakhstan. And it felt great. There is certainly a sheen of grouchiness to the Russians, I wouldn’t dare deny that, but it’s really just superficial, almost a cultural or stylistic choice, and easily broken through with just a few words of conversation.

It began to mist on us, ever so slightly as we made our way into the more gnarly and built up city center. Little droplets of water were clinging to my mustache and wool sweater as we pedaled across a large trestle bridge over the river, Ob. We passed by a couple of young men on the bridge, who’s fantastic leather jackets and completely wild vertical mullets convinced us that we needed to adopt a little Russian style before we left Siberia. They were like the perfect cross between Jack White and David Bowie.

We had, in the depths of our time in Astana, riddled with bed bug bites, and computing in the lobby of the Radisson, decided to just go ahead and splash out a little here in Novosibirsk. We had been advised by Ms. Helen Stuhrrommereim, that our first registration here in Russia was the most important, and that in the future we would only need register in a city that we would be staying in for more than three days. More than a three day stay in a city is rare on AsiaWheeling, and we had read that there was only one Hotel in Novosibirsk that would be guaranteed to both be open to foreigner guests, and be sure to register you, and that was the Hotel Novosibirsk. It was by no means a cheap hotel, not by anyone’s standards, and certainly not by AsiaWheeling’s. But we had booked it. And over the internet no less. We could not even remember the last time we stayed at a hotel that could be booked over the internet (ok… yes we can… it was probably the intercontinental in Muscat with the Illustrious Mr. fu).

We stopped by an ATM on the way to the hotel. It was a Russky Standart ATM. I had, living in Petersburg become familiar with their world famous Russkiy Standart Vodka…

…but I had not yet learned that the vodka company had made a foray into the world of banking!

The rain stopped just as quickly as it had started, and we found ourselves at a large central intersection. We stopped there on the quickly drying streets to ask a pedestrian who was so startled to see us, that he responded to our question of “Do you know where the Hotel Novosibirsk is?” with a simple “yes,” and them some dumbfounded glassy eyed staring at us and our cycles.

“Could you tell me where?”

“Ah yes of course…”

And two blocks later we were looking at one of the ugliest, blockiest concrete hotels we had ever seen, dropped down like a giant alien tombstone, right there in front of us.

The misting rain was started back up again as we wheeled our bikes into the lobby. It was certainly a much more impressive hotel on the inside than the out. We headed up to the gleaming mahogany front desk, and were immediately assigned a few beautiful women, one of whom showed us where to park the bikes, the other of whom pulled up my registration online and took the payment.

They ran a tight ship here. They took our passports from us and registered us right there and then, scanning all the relative paperwork and sending off the completed forms via email, giving our passports back in a matter of minutes.

Feeling just great about this place, we headed up to our room, which was not Chinese business quality, but is was plenty clean. The hot water seemed to be inactive, and the wireless internet network up there didn’t seem to be giving up any data, but our view of the train station across the street was magnificent.

We changed out of our sandals, threw on our pointy Uzbek shoes and sweaters and split to go stroll a little in Russia. Strolling is of course not quite the right term, though. What we really wanted to do was Gulyat. The russians have many words for walk, just as Inuits have many words for snow, and Gulyat is the Russian term for entertaining one’s self by wandering around, chatting and pointing their heads into various shops parks, cafés and the like. Gulyat is about as close to a national sport as Russia has. I mean they like hockey, some of them, but they all love to Gulyat. You could even say that the Gulyat is not unlike wheeling without the bike.

And so Gulyat we did, stopping first at a Blin place, so that Scott could try his first Russian crepe. We chose to get them with smoked salmon and fresh dill and eat them as they walked. They were splendid.

And so we strolled on, through the gentle mist, into a large outdoor market, where they were selling everything from fruit to fish.

From there, we strolled on into one of the large soviet built housing blocks, all of which have a giant interior courtyard, usually sporting a children’s playground and a few small gardening plots.

In Soviet times, the Russians had very few options when it came to brands and types of consumer products. And, though the Soviet Union has been long gone now, there is still a reactionary increase in the selection of products. This cigarette kiosk for instance, has only a typically Russian selection of brands and sub-brands.

We were not interested in cigarettes, so we headed on, past another one of those Kvas tanks that we’d seen so much in Kazakhstan. Here in Novosibirsk they seemed to go with the more subtle blue and white patterning over the louder yellow they’d preferred in Astana.  Continuing to stroll, we inspected the offering of restaurants and pubs in which we might be able to feast.

The sun was just setting as we arrived back at the hotel Novosibirsk. It felt great to be in here. Our hotel made us feel like princes and the city had a fresh and invigorating vibe to it. So we decided to go out and celebrate by purchasing the first glass of ale that we’d been able to find since Hong Kong. It came accompanied by the classic beer Russian beer snacks, a kind of black crouton snack called Grenki.

As we walked back to the Hotel Novosibirsk, we stopped at a Ukrainian Peasant Branded baked potato stand, and got a couple of baked potatoes with cheese and mayonnaisey salads on top. They were heavy and greasy, but also quite satisfying.

Back at the hotel, we continued to strike out on the hot water and the in-room wifi, but all was forgiven when we went downstairs to the second floor lobby to connect. Not only could we easily get on the network, but we were seeing unprecedented speeds. I’m taking four or five hundred kilobytes per second downloads. We were in Russia now, and it was time for AsiaWheeling to get back to being seriously on the Internet.

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