A Day Out from Moscow. Part 1: The Joys of Cycling
To paraphrase Mick Jagger: summer’s here and the time is right for cycling in the streets. I have been doing just that since I first came to live in Moscow nearly five years ago. I bought a second-hand mountain bike for exercise, local mobility and to make it easier to carry the week’s shopping home from Ashan. For 3,000 roubles, I acquired the ability to cycle blithely past both trudging, bag-laden pedestrians and traffic-jammed motorists.
I next explored Khimki by bike, finding Beria’s old dacha in the woods at Kurkino and a wonderful open-air pool in a sports complex at Planernaya which I still visit whenever the roads are dry. After thoroughly exploring Khimki I decided to go further afield. That was when I discovered the key to pleasurable cycling in Russia: the railways. You can take a bike on any elektrichka (though not long-distance train).
My first expedition was to visit the Polish cemetery at Mednoye. I wrote about this in PASSPORT in July 2008. I took the train from Khimki to Tver, and then changed to another and travelled a further four stops to a tiny country station, Kulitskaya, where I got off to find cows grazing beside the line, chickens running around the village and a dirt road leading off into a forest of tall pines and birches. Ten kilometres later I was next to the Tvertsa river, which was the final front line in November 1941 before the Soviet counter-attack began. It crosses the old Leningrad highway (the new road by-passes the town) at Mednoye. Close by, in the middle of a beautiful forest where the NKVD used to have its dachas, are the mass graves of about 6,000 Poles who had been killed in 1940 in a parallel operation to that at Katyn.
In Mednoye I found a shop where I could buy a can of beer, then sat in the sunshine by the war memorial at the bridge, overlooking the river, and ate my “bootterbrod” and a bar of chocolate amid the lush, mid-May greenery. This, I remember thinking with the force of revelation, is the way to see Russia.
Of course, I could have reached that spot by car, but the problem with cars is that you speed along and do not think of the little by-ways, much less explore them as I have done so many times to find unexpected surprises. You never get to places like Kulitskaya. And, of course, you do not get any exercise.
By the time I got back to the station, I had cycled 40 kilometres on a rather unhandy mountain bike on roads which were mostly either sand (see above) or lethally pot-holed tar. It was hard work. I was tired. I decided that I needed to buy a bicycle more attuned to long-distance cycling—and also to find better roads. To condense three years’ experience into a very broad generalisation: stick to the Moscow oblast.
Another reason for confining yourself to the Moscow oblast is that is it is the only part of Russia where there is a really excellent guide book, in English, which tells you where you might like to go and why. This is Kathleen Berton Murrell’s Discovering the Moscow Countryside (I.B. Taurus). It has taken me three summers to explore only the highlights of the available destinations on the north-west to north-east quadrant out of Moscow, which is the most accessible from Khimki.
But the main thing you need to enjoy doing this is a proper bike, what the Russians call a шосейный велосипед (chausseyny velociped), or what I call a Tour de France-style bike. What is the best way to buy one?
There are many bicycle shops in Moscow, ranging from Ashan itself, where you can buy cheap but perfectly serviceable mountain bikes, to places like the specialist bike shop close to Tushinksaya Metro station or the enormous sport-equipment centre near Rechnoy Voksal, called Ekstreem (take the green line Metro to the north end then get the free marshrutka which shuttles between the two). However, the best place by far is the specialist bike market at Sokolniki, which is where I went. It has no street address and is not immediately obvious. Go to the rear of the Holiday Inn by the Sokolniki Metro station and walk about until you see bikes in profusion, then go inside, where you will find a covered market with innumerable traders who will not only sell you a bike, but make one up to your specification.
I found a friendly seller of Tour de France-type bikes and asked for the cheapest serious bike he could sell me. We selected a frame, handlebars, saddle and the type of pedals and gears I wanted. He put it all together on the spot (see above). I bought all the accessories I thought I might need: a “baggazhnik”, waterbottle, speed-distance clock, some tools, spare inner tubes etc., and then cycled proudly home to Khimki.
The bike itself cost 15,000 roubles, and all the extras, including a foot pump and some more tools from Ekstreem, another 5,000. I was up and peddling for 20,000 roubles all in. That bike runs like a dream and has never given me a moment’s trouble, though I have been careful to keep it clean and well-oiled etc. The result is that I have travelled all over the northern part of the Moscow oblast and been to places which few other foreign residents of the city have seen. My average weekend run is between 60 and 90 kilometres (the longest was 115 kms, cycling to Dubna on the Volga then taking the train back). Yet it is so easy to ride that bike that I get into the bath afterwards feeling pleasantly tired rather than utterly knackered.
I plan my trips round the places of interest described in Ms Morrell’s wonderful book. Then I consult the Moscow page of the Weather Underground website (www.wunderground. com) to see which way the wind is likely to be blowing that day. Finally I look up the Russian Railways timetable on the internet and organise myself on the basis of travelling the downwind leg by bike and the upwind one by train.
I have also cycled quite a lot around urban Moscow on sunny weekends. Almost everyone expresses horror at the idea of taking a bike on the same roads as “Russian drivers”. True, I have had “hairy moments” here, though very few, and no more often than I had them cycling in Edinburgh. In fact, Russian drivers are usually courteous towards cyclists, though some seem blind to their presence. If I were forced to generalise, I would say that there are more inattentive drivers in Russia than in Britain, but fewer aggressive ones. The result is much the same. Nowhere is cycling entirely safe. But then a life lived fully is not safe either.
Perhaps that is why cycling appeals to so many celebrities. Mick Jagger cycles, as do Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robin Williams and even the prince of petrol- heads, Jeremy Clarkson. They are all very much alive. The only celebrity I know of who came to harm on two wheels is George W. Bush. He famously crashed his bike into a carelesslysited policemen while waving to the crowd at the G20 summit at Gleneagles in 2005. Arguably, that makes my point!
Over the next four months I will describe four of the most interesting places I have cycled to near Moscow.