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Ernst's Velotouren

Bicycle tour 2008 - 2013
First stage Switzerland - Thailand
Part 4: Russia, June 2008

Bad news: The news which I get from the internet pages of other long-distance cyclists are really bad. The Chinese goverment has changed the visa rules due to the upcoming Olympic Games. Visas are issued only after presenting a flight ticket and a hotel reservation. I wanted to get the Chinese visa in Almaty, Kazakhstan. But now I might have to reconsider the whole further trip...

But there are more bad news: The planned reopening of Tibet after the protests in March is postponed to an unknown date. The rumours in the long-distance cyclists' online-society say that cyclists might have to wait until October, after the Paraolympics, to enter Tibet.

So urgently I need a plan B - and hope I don't need to work out a plan C immediately! At this time I have several alternatives:

1) Get the Chinese visa in Switzerland (very expensive!).
2) Wait the time until the end of the Olympic Games hoping the visa regualations get back to normal (The chance is good but probably it will be too late in the year to travel to Tibet).
3) Take a completly different route (e.g. trough Russia to Mongolia and apply for the Chinese visa with the same hope in September in the mongolian capital Ulaan Bator).
4) Take a flight from Kazakhstan to Thailand (would be a pity and spoil the whole trip).

However - I will continue my trip to Almaty and check out the situation over there.

Picture: The first impressions of Russia (at the coast of the Asovskoe Sea). The roads are much better than in the Ukraine and also the traffic seems to be more relaxed.
I was riding along the southern coast of the Asovskoe Sea to the city of Krasnodar, a place which I better would have avoided. The loud and respectless traffic in the town is a cyclist's hell! So I escaped the city as fast as possible and started to ride towards Elista.
Picture: The landscape in the oblasts (= provinces) Krasnodar and Stavropol is dominated by endless grain fields which are cut every few kilometeres with a strip of trees to protect the fields from the wind. The narrow strips of trees are always a good and hidden place to stay over night in the tent.
Picture: Still 241 km to Elista, the city with the next available accommodation
On one camp site, just besides the tent, my nose detected a huge and strong bush of hemp ("Cannabis Sativa" for botanists) bewitching me the whole night with its sweet odours ;-). Morning at six o'clock, when I woke up, I experienced a completly opened consciousness (see the sincerity and integrity in my weird eyes!). But the effect of the marihuana was soon lost and my consciousness was again as dumb as ever. But during this night I experienced the mental input how I could order also potato dishes in the highway restaurants what finally marked a huge improvement of my eating habits in Russia. During weeks I had eaten only "borshtsh" and salads because I was not able to order anything else!
Picture: Completely expanded consciousness due to the miracle effects of Cannabis Sativa
With the crossing of the river Manich I reached the Autonomous Repulblic Kalmykia and with this a completely different world. Within a few kilometers the landscape became a steppe without any trees, and the few villages on my way were not anymore inhabited by Russians but by Kalmykians, a mongolian people. The Kalmykians left their homeland in Xinjiang (Western China) in the early 17th century and settled from 1632 on besides the left and right banks of the lower Volga river.
Picture: The river Manich, wide like a big lake..
Picture: Kalmykia welcomed me with a grim thunderstorm which fortunately took another way than me.
icture: Just a few bushes along the street protect me from curious looks. Lots of different animals make their living in the high gras. Even colourful snakes visited me for a moment and had a short wondering look into my tent.
Kalmykia is with only 3.7 persons per square kilometer one of the less inhabited regions of the world. Now the distances between the little villages become longer (roughly 50km) and the traffic becomes less and less. In this landscape the whole bicycle tour comes to a completly new dimension, approaching every day a bit more the border between Europe and Asia.
Picture: Shortly before Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. The landscape has turned definitely into a vast and dry plain.
Despite the distance to their homeland and the brutal oppression of Joseph Stalin the Kalmykians still strongly keep their traditions und old culture alive. 1943 dictator Stalin deported the whole people to Siberia and stroke the Kalmykians from the list of the peoples of the Soviet Union. Roughly 30% of the deported died in this genocide. Under the new government of Nikita Khrushchev, the surviving were allowed to return to Kalmykia in 1958.

The Kalmykians are the only people in Europe being mainly Buddhists. They are, as other mongolian peoples too, devoted to the Tibetan Buddhism and worship the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader.
Bild: Small buddhist temple in a city park of Elista.
Bild: A look over Elista in the dawn (with rising moon).
I was amazed to find Buddhism so much alive in Kalmykia. Coincidentally I stepped into the Golden Temple of Elista during the most important buddhistic holiday, the Vesakh (also Vesak, Visakah, Wesak). At this day an uncountable number of people visited the temple, donated money and food to the monastry and praised humble Prince Sidhartha Gotama, better known as "Buddha" (literally: "the awaken one"). The statue is about 9 meters high and is the biggest of its kind in Europe.
Picture: Main hall of the "Golden Temple" during the Vesakh-Puja. Vesakh is the most important buddhistic holiday and is held in memory to Lord Buddha's birth, awakening and its final deathless state.
Picture: The "Golden Temple" of Elista. "Om mani padme hum".
From Elista I rode further east through the plain to Astrakhan at the river Volga. In such a vast and lonely landscape I already experience deep feelings of happiness, contentment and complete satisfaction only having some dry bread and water. Who can enjoy such an easy and satisfying emotion in a domestic and settled-down life? I am so happy that I left house and property behind!
Picture: Many hundred kilometers just vast steppe, no trees, no hills, no people...
Sergey, a chechnyan stockbreeder came at 6:30 AM to my tent to have a friendly chat about intercontinental cycling, swiss mountains, kazakh steppe and war in Chechnya. Then he wanted to be photgraphed with the bicycle, his cows and the tent in the background. Of course it was a pleasure to fulfill his wish.
Bild: Sergey with the bicycle, his cows and the tent in the background.
With the arrival in the city of Astrakhan the way through Russia is almost completed. Only about 50 km are remaining to the border of Kazakhstan, and roughly 300 km to the border of Europe. Asia is already very close now.
Bild: A view on the river Volga and the city of Astrakhan
Bild: Sunset at the river Volga in Astrakhan
Bild: A typical russian home in the outskirts of Astrakhan.
Next page / Part 5: West-Kazakhstan