Into Russia in 1998

5th December 2021 |

The first copies of my new book will get here on Wednesday I’m told, and I’m pretty eager to see them. Angel and Teresa who have designed it and had it printed in Spain are bringing them back in their van. The rest will come next week in a truck. Meanwhile here’s the second half of the piece I wrote back in ’98 when I took a Triumph over the same route that I’d walked in ’93 to write The Gypsy in Me.

I like praise and admiration as much as anyone. Why is it my best stories always seem to be about how I made a fool of myself? Take, for example, the morning I arrived in Russia.

I went in at a place called Mamanovo, on the road to Kaliningrad, the western-most point of Russia, on the border with Poland. I had all my papers ready, or so I thought. There was the title to the Triumph Adventurer that Hinckley had lent me for the trip; a letter from the factory saying I was authorised to ride it; a green insurance paper and, of course, my passport with a visa for one night in Kaliningrad that cost me $200 because it included an obligatory hotel room.

It should have been a cinch, but Nyet. I ran up against a little fellow in a light blue uniform with one of those “Nyet” faces from the Cold War. He didn’t like where I had stopped my bike. He wanted it another two feet forward so he wouldn’t have to move himself.

I always suck up to border guards, a habit I acquired in exotic places long ago. So wearing a sycophantic smile, and with my papers clutched around my clutch lever (of course) I edged forward, found neutral, and passed the papers over. I should have put down the side stand.

“Driving Licence,” he snapped, in German. Damn, why didn’t I think of that? It’s inside my jacket. I shuffled around. Then he thrust some other papers at me. Well, you know how it goes. I reached over, unbalanced, and lost it. 500 pounds of metal fell on his foot – or would have if he hadn’t leapt out of the way, uttering stony curses.

If there is anything more pathetic than a bike lying on its side, like an upturned beetle, it’s the rider who dropped it. A spoonful of oil dribbled out from somewhere above the cylinder heads – I really don’t know anything about these new triples – as I heaved it up again, feeling pretty silly. Officer Nyet pointed grimly to another spot of tarmac out of the mainstream and I wheeled the bike away and stood there, forlorn, embarrassed, waiting for them to digest me at their leisure.

Instead I got Natasha. Have you noticed that pretty girls in uniform with the power to change your life always look even prettier? Well I have. Natasha was a dazzling young blonde with a peachy complexion, red lips and sky-blue eyes that matched her uniform. The lieutenant’s pips on the shoulders of her white blouse were very sexy, and she spoke a kind of fairy-tale English. Best of all, she actually seemed anxious to please ME.

“So stupid,” I murmured, referring to my own mishap.

“Yes, I know, it’s stupid,” she agreed eagerly, but she was talking about her own bureaucratic absurdities. It took me a moment to grasp what she was telling me. To avoid paying a bunch more money, she said, I had to write a letter pretending to be the Triumph Motorcycle Company and saying that I, Ted Simon, was riding strictly for pleasure. Then I signed it, Ted Simon. It was probably the most ridiculous letter I have ever written, but it satisfied them. In the stupidity stakes I figured we were running about even.

Naturally in the meantime I had fallen in love with Natasha. She explained that she was an electrical engineer from Kazakhstan but had to take this job because Kazakhstan didn’t have enough electricity to occupy her. I had the feeling that she would rather have just hopped on the back, and it was hard to ride away and nip our romance in the bud. Sadly, we said goodbye forever, and I set off to continue my quest.

Actually I was looking for a tank regiment, at a place called Kornevo. This whole western area of Russia – once a part of Germany – used to be crammed with military. Walking through it in 1993 I had stumbled on a “Tankodrom” and got invited to stay at the commander’s apartment. He was a very nice and honourable man, but he and his regiment were all living in unbelievably slum-like conditions. I wanted to know what had become of them.

The paved road soon turned to dirt, to my relief. In this part of Russia the roads were so badly broken up that dirt was much preferable. The Triumph handled fine as I wound my way along cart tracks and through peasant villages, waving at curious babushkas. After about forty miles I got to Kornevo.

The slums were still there, looking even worse than before, and so were the soldiers but they weren’t in the army any longer. The tanks had gone. So had my colonel. The men and their families had simply been abandoned to live off the land as best they could. I found all this out by talking to them. Don’t ask me how. They spoke only Russian and I’ve forgotten all the Russian I ever knew. It’s remarkable how humans communicate.

And another thing. Here I am with this shiny modern machine surrounded by destitute veterans of nasty wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and I had to leave the bike outside while I tramped up four flights of filthy stairs, but I wasn’t kidnapped, nobody took anything, nobody asked me for anything. As I’m always saying, it’s much safer than you think.

When I got to Kaliningrad I had no idea how to find the Tourist Hotel, but there was one grand hotel on the central square where I knew I could get a map and change money. The big problem, though, was where to leave the bike. Hadn’t I been warned a hundred times that criminals abound? I guessed that if I parked it on the pavement, right in the middle of the busy foot traffic, it would be hard for anyone to steal from it.

I was in the hotel a lot longer than I should have been, dealing with bad-tempered people who didn’t want to be bothered. A woman came into the lobby looking flustered and spoke to me in English.

“There is a policeman who says you must look after your motorcycle.”

I had just got everything I needed and went out. AA young cop – barely eighteen – with a huge peaked cap that came down over his ears, wagged his finger at me and put on a stern expression that looked ludicrous on his fresh, boyish face. He went on wagging his finger, lost for words. He thought I was a naïve and congenitally foolish westerner. I thought my strategy for enlisting the neighbourhood watch had worked out rather well.

The Tourist Hotel, when I found it, was like an old lady marooned and subsiding gently in an ocean of rubbish. Next to her stood a maze of eroding concrete pillars, all that was left of some entrepreneur’s failed dream. Across the road suspicious types hung out around a defunct garrison. Where would my bike fit into this picture? I needn’t have worried.

As soon as the harried woman behind the battered wooden counter heard that I had a motorcycle she swung into action. A man in a suit was dispatched immediately to watch over it while I trundled up to the third floor in a wheezing lift. Later she directed me to a piece of wasteland that probably hadn’t changed much since the Red Army pounded its way through to Berlin in 1945. A local businessman had put up a fence around this heap of rubble, built a little shack, and charged four rubles (50 cents) a night. My bike was shackled to a girder and was never safer.

See, it was like that everywhere. In Romania, which everybody knows is a nest of thieves, they love to think of ingenious ways to defeat the enemy. My bike spent three nights in hotel lobbies and another behind a barricade outside a friend’s cousin’s front door. Not only that, but my friend’s cousin cannibalised his bicycle for washers and nuts to repair my right indicator which was drooping miserably. Why? Well, you see there was this army captain at the Ukrainian border and he was determined to ride my bike. He begged, he pleaded, he cajoled. Just once around the yard, he said. He was the boss. He seemed to know about bikes. “One down, four up” he signalled, with an ingratiating smile. And so I let him. It was clear immediately that he hadn’t expected so much weight, but he recovered from that and was up to third gear before he came round among us again. Then he couldn’t resist a final flourish as he drew the bike up to a sideways slide and a smart stop. The triumphant grin was still on his face as the bike fell on top of him, breaking the mirror and snapping the indicator stalk.

He was deeply embarrassed and I was furious but there wasn’t much I could do. He probably earned all of $10 a month, and anyway I should have known better. So with one orange lense dangling I rode on into Romania.

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