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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

A Day Out

A Day Out from Moscow by Bicycle

Part 3: Off to See the Boss

Text and photos by Ian Mitchell

For some people “the Boss” is Bruce Springsteen; for others it was Margaret Thatcher. For me, that title belongs to John Harrison, who graciously invited me out to his country seat recently, for a head-shaking session and demonstration of his shashlik-cooking prowess. The last time I visited, it was in the depths of winter and I was completely uninformed of the nature of the countryside due to the uniform white everywhere at ground-level and the equally uniform grey up above. This time I wanted to see everything in the riotous greens and skyblue of high summer, and there is no better way of doing that in Russia than from the saddle of a bicycle.

I planned to cover the first stage of the journey by taking the train from the Kiev station to a tiny halt called Vorsino, near Borovsk (which the train does not reach). Since I lost my hat at the Aleksandrovskaya Sloboda last time, and it was a very hot and sunny weekend, I stopped at the market near Planernaya Metro station to buy a replacement. This took longer than expected with the result that I began to doubt that I had enough time to cycle to Kievskaya and be sure to be in time for my train. So I decided to hop on the Metro. Big mistake. “Nelzya!” said the unsmiling Michelin-lady at the “tourniket”. I told her that I had taken a bike on the Metro before, and believed it to be allowed. “Nelzya,” she said again, more loudly. “The regulations forbid this.”

A long argument ensued. Now I really thought that I would miss the train unless I took the Metro, so I waited until she was distracted and walked through the barrier to the sound of halfhearted curses from behind me. I got off at Barrikadnaya where I asked at the ticket office if bicycles were really forbidden on the Metro system. Neither of the ladies knew. After conferring, they said, “It depends on who is at the tourniket.” I persisted, since I now had plenty of time and, for future reference (not to mention the information of my readers), I really wanted to know.

Ultimately, it turned out that it really is “nelzya”. Though since there was no-one at all watching the tourniket at Barrikadnaya at the time, I leave the reader to infer the reality of this hideously inconvenient rule for any cyclist who wants to cross town. It is understandable on weekdays when the trains are crowded, but on weekends and holidays when the station as are deserted it is wholly unnecessary.

The journey out from Kievskaya was pleasantly uneventful, and two hours later, I alighted at one of the most primitive stations I have ever seen in Russia. There was no way of getting a vehicle within a hundred yards of the platform, or not that I could see. But that is the delight of Russia—expect the unexpected. The next unexpected encounter I had was with a bear, a wolf, a lynx an eagle and a host of other forms of stuffed animal, on display by the roadside outside Borovsk— for sale naturally: once again, this is Russia.

Borovsk is an attractive town with an interesting history, but it was well described by John Bonar in PASSPORT in July 2006, so I will merely remind readers why they should visit it: because the railway does not go there. The result of that is that Soviet industrialisation largely passed it by. There are many other reasons to visit, including the amazing trompe l’oeil art on the walls of so many of the buildings in the centre. Napoleon spent a night here, after the battle of Malo Yaroslavets forced him to retreat by the route he came into Russia on, rather on the southern one he originally favoured. Of the nine major battles fought in that campaign, this was—ironically in the light of the overall, strategic outcome—the only one which was a clear Russian victory.

Borovsk is in the Kaluga Oblast, and John’s dacha is in the Moscow Oblast, perhaps twenty kilometres away as the crow flies. But herein lies another trap for the unwary cyclist: between the various oblasti, the road connections are often few and far between. It seems Russia has no national road plan. Apart from the trunk routes, each oblast administration builds for its own convenience rather than for the convenience of the general traveller. Had I wished to go from Borovsk to John’s place by road, I would have had to cycle about seventy kilometres to cover that twenty.

Here is where another invaluable book for the Moscow cyclist needs to be mentioned. Unfortunately, unlike Kathleen Berton Morrell’s wonderful book (see Part 1) this one is only in Russian. It is called Велотуризм, and comes in two volumes, Подмосковье and Большое кольцо Подмосковья. The first one covers the outer areas of the Moscow Oblast, and a bit beyond, and the second the areas on and within the Outer Ring road that runs through Dmitrov, Klin, Naro-Fomisk etc. Between them they describe 64 different routes which a cyclist might like to explore, most of them less than a 100 kilometers, which the authors think is the sensible maximum for a day’s leisure cycling (I agree). They are full of useful information, including details of the road or track conditions you can expect, and can be bought at most major bookshops in Moscow.

The first one showed me a way from the Kaluga Oblast through to the Moscow Oblast which reduced the detour from fifty kilometres to about twenty—so that my whole journey from the station to John’s house was about sixty kilometres in all.

This involved five or six kilometres on a gravel road, and then three on a farm track which was not on my road map. It ran though a field then a forest and finally across a meadow which seemed to stretch right to the next forest far beyond— at least until I noticed a bus crossing the meadow not far ahead and was able to infer that I was would shortly reach the road which led back to civilization.

From there it was a beautiful run on good roads in the cool of the evening. There was just enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay and the silent countryside was lush and green, and almost completely deserted. This area is an undiscovered jewel in the south-western recesses of the Moscow Oblast.

The night at Harrison Towers proved as entertaining as expected, so I spent a further day relaxing and making ready for the second leg of the trip, which was to take me to Mozhaisk, from where I intended catching the train back to Moscow. I traveled through the lovely little town of Vereya, which was also by-passed by the railway and therefore retains much of its residual Russian charm. It has a tiny kremlin, a museum and a “lower town” with wooden houses and a functioning Old Believer church, all situated on the banks of a little river that looked so clean that I would had a swim if I had had the time. Amazingly, even though Vereya only has a population of 5,000, it fields a rugby team.

The train from Mozhaisk ends at Byelorusskaya station, but I got off at Begovaya as that is closer to Khimki. I thought I’d try the Metro with the bike. I went through the tourniket at the opposite end from where the guard was sitting in her little glass cabin. No-one noticed or bothered, and so I was able to get home slightly less fatigued than otherwise, having covered, all told, about 140 kilometers, which was enough for an old man like me on a weekend that early in the season.

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