On my bike: Days out from Moscow
Part 2: The Alexandrovskaya Sloboda
Text and photos by Ian Mitchell
The heart of darkness is painted a dazzling white, or so I discovered when I visited the place from where Ivan the Terrible ran Russia in the savage years of the Oprichnina when he tortured, beat, ruined, humiliated and frequently killed his most powerful subjects—rather as his great admirer, Stalin, did during the Great Terror.
This place was the Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, my most recent expedition by bicycle, on the last weekend in May. I have decided to cover it first in this series as the day exposed some of the problems, which it is perhaps best to warn budding cyclists about before they go too far, and one unconventional recommendation.
It is a about 110 kms to the town of Alexandrov from the MKAD and, as such too far for me to make even one direction in a day as I would have a 25 kms ride to get to where the Yaroslavl road leaves the MKAD, plus the 25kms back round the MKAD to Khimki, making about 160kms in all. I try to limit myself to about 100 kms on a single day, as I want to be able to have the energy to walk round the places I am visiting.
I cycled to Khlebnikovo station, which is just behind Sheremetyevo airport on the Dmitrov line, and which is my normal starting point for any destination north of Moscow. It was a lovely, 15km ride at 7.30 in the morning, cool and largely traffic-free on the Sunday. My plan was to take the cross-country train from Dmitrov towards Alexandrov, then get off and cycle through a few interesting-looking villages on my way into town. I had worked out the times on the RZhD website, including a change at Iksha which allowed me a twenty minute margin for error, platform finding etc.
The first problem occurred at the Khlebnikovo ticket office where I was told they could not sell me a ticket to Alexandrov. Puzzled, I bought a ticket to Iksha presuming I could buy a further one there. Bad presumption. I found a very rude lady behind the tiny, waist-high window at which I had to make supplication for permission to pay for my journey (my observation is that many travellers on elektrichki do not pay). No tickets to Alexandrov, she said. No trains go there. I showed here the print-out of the website and she merely said, “Nyet” more loudly. I would have to go to Dmitrov and change trains. No, I said, the line forks at Yakhroma which is the stop before Dmitrov. A further “sharp” exchange of views ensued, by which time the people in the queue behind me were getting restless, and the train that was supposed to be arriving was nearly due. So I bought a ticket to Dmitrov and decide I would get there and see what the situation was.
Just as I was crossing the bridge to the platform, a little fourcarriage, blue-painted train pulled in. It said “Alexandrov” on its destination board! I raced down the stairs with the bike and just managed to get in before the doors slammed shut. This was, of course, the train on the timetable, running bang on time, but which the ticket officer had said did not exist.
My little train was nearly empty, and it ran on a twisting, single- track line though beautiful forests, tiny hamlets and then more forests for an hour and half until it met the main line from Moscow to Alexandrov, which then goes on to Jarolsavl, Vologda and Arkhangelsk. There were no ticket inspectors, so the result of the altercation at Iksha was that my journey from Yakhroma onwards was free.
I got out at Kilometre 81, about 30kms short of Alexandrov and set off into the baking heat on an incredibly pot-holed road. I was heading for the small village of Gagino, where there is an extremely unusual church that Shalyapin once sang in. Discovering that the direct route soon turned into an unsurfaced road, I took a longer way round, only to find that, close to Gagino, it too became earth and stones, which are not ideal on narrow tyres. I carried slowly and got there to find the strange building pictured below.
Having travelled much further than I intended, I thought I would cycle to the nearest station and catch the first train into Alexandrov as, on the main line, they run at least every half hour. This road too, though looking important on my map, turned out to be dirt, but I carried on (see picture opposite). Then I saw an unusual-looking church a mile away across some fields and thought I’d take a detour.
I found an amazing little hamlet, called Nikulskoye, arranged around a tree-girt pond. This new structure had been built by the owner of a nearby “usadba” (estate), a resident told me. When I told him where I was going, he said, “Nevasmozhno! That road goes though a military area. They will be able to tell from your accent that you are a foreigner and you will not be allowed though. You might be arrested.”
I pointed to my map, which clearly showed an uninterrupted road. “Military areas are secret,” he said. “They do not print them on maps like this.”
“Secret from whom?” I asked. “The Americans?”
He laughed and said, “This is still Communist country.”
I would have to go back the way I had come, almost as far as Kilometre 81. A motorist on the road confirmed this, so I reluctantly turned and headed back in the direction I had come on what looked like a minor road, but which soon changed into a well-surfaced tarmac one.
Alexandrov is an elegantly dilapidated provincial town that was not too heavily touched by Soviet industrialisation. Unfortunately, due to my detours, I no longer had time to explore it. The “Sloboda”, or Ivan’s Kremlin, is a couple of kilometres from the station.
It has been extensively restored, including being painted a brilliant white. As a museum, it is very “Russian”, in that it has excellent displays, pleasant-looking young guides, is not expensive and sells informative guide-books. But all the printed material is in Russian, foreigners are charged extra admission because they are foreign and some of the elderly ladies guarding the exhibits are extremely rude. One of them actually waved a knife in my face when I asked why she would not let me into the totally empty “Peasant Hut” which she said was closed “due to excursions”.
Despite the “Soviet theme park” aspect, Ivan’s private kremlin is worth visiting if you want a deeper insight into the half-mad Tsar’s strangeness and violence. In the basement beneath his bedroom (pictured) he stands smirking next to hot irons, while a prisoner sits helplessly in the stocks ready to have the soles of his feet roasted.
The whole place is still a working monastery, which gives it more life. Black-clad nuns sweep back and forth in frowning silence. They reminded me of the Oprichniki, who all wore black, as did Ivan when he set off, from that very spot, to decimate Tver and destroy Novgorod in the fateful summer of 1570. That was just twelve months before the Crimean Tatars burnt Moscow to the ground, and forced the Tsar to flee first to Alexandrov then to Vologda and the White Sea, so terrified was the torturer of his own people by the foreigners.
I caught the 5.00 train back to Moscow, got off at Perlovskaya, next to the MKAD near Mtishchi, and cycled the 25kms back to Khimki in less than an hour. The headwind was negated by the slipstream of the huge trucks pounding along beside me. Despite what most cyclists say, the MKAD, with its shoulder lane, smooth surface and lack of hills, is one of the more convenient roads in Moscow, though not of course very scenic. After having cycled 85kms in the heat and dust, I was glad to be home and relaxing in the bath by 7.30—tired but happy, as Enid Blyton used to say of the Famous Five after they had peddled back from a picnic at Smugglers’ Top.