Border to Astrakhan: 61 km
The entry and exit into Russia was smooth. We exited Kazakhstan at 10 am but due to the time difference after taking almost two hours here we exited the border, and they insisted they didn’t need to stamp our carnet for formalities.
I was looking forward to seeing the same border I had entered in 2013 on my extraordinary motorcycle journey from Vadodara to London. There was a special reason: In 2013, we crossed the border at 1.30 am. When we entered Russia, there was no place to sleep as there are no hotels on this side. We had started at 6 am from Atyrau. After much requesting via gestures, a lady called Maria allowed us to sleep in her office from 4 am to 6 am. When we woke up, I folded my hands and thanked her with a bow. She smiled, and off we went. I was expecting that she would be here again.
I went to the same cabin office, but another girl was working there; she recalled a girl called Maria working here earlier. It had been six years now. With permission, I took photos of the two beds we slept on, and thanked her too.
We headed for the beautiful Astrakhan city, 61 km away. Eight km from the border, we crossed the century-old poonton bridge, in the village Krasny Yar, Buzan, made from sheets of iron stapled together. I have seen such a bridge only in war movies shown school in the 70s. They take a token toll here, and you have to control your vehicle, as the joints will jerk it from right to left all through out. It made me feel like I was travelling in the early 20th century, around the time of World War 2.
Astrakhan is one of the most loved tourist centres in the summer. The weather was just right for us Indians. An official of the Dakar Rally was staying at the same hotel as me—Sergey Zhilgalo, an elderly person, tall and lanky, spotting a white French beard and very cheerful. He invited me for a drink, and opened up the boot of his car to lay out a platform with lemon, juices, glasses and vodka, right there in the open parking lot. I had many questions for him, especially since he also conducts car tours in Kazakhstan and Russia. While we were having a drink, we came across some rowdy locals, who also joined us. I asked Sergey if he knew them, and he said, it’s okay, they are the gangsters of this area; he had met them before since he stays at the same hotel every season. It was a fun evening as the locals tried to sing many Indian songs of Mithun Chakraborty, who is a celebrity here.
The next day, I went about the city and spent some time at the Volga riverfront, a popular tourist spot, bustling with activity. Two large boats can take you around the river, with restaurants on board. It’s like one big festival here. Dinner was food packets with bread, brought from India.
Astrakhan to Volgograd: 430 kms
Next, we headed for Volgograd some 430 kms away, formerly known as Stalingrad. The city is close to my heart, as I made many friends during the Night Wolves MC motorcycle festival here, the last time I was here. Alexander Yakovlev and his wife, Alina, came to our hotel to visit me. Both had tears in their eyes when we met, after six years. It was a great feeling that people from another part of the word have the same feeling I carry. We went for a drive and chalked out plans for the next two days.
Alexander had arranged a special visit to the historic Volgodon Museum. It has details of the Volgodon Shipping Canal, built in 1953, a specimen of 20th century engineering. It joined two of Russia’s major rivers to form Volgodon. This cut the time taken to transport goods by many hours. I would highly recommend the museum.
This shipping canal was built during Stalin’s leadership; in the museum, you can see Stalin’s desk, from where he controlled the entire USSR. As a special guest, I was permitted to sit on Stalin’s desk and use the phone he used to give orders. My friends had a hearty laugh. At the end of our visit, the director presented me with a replica of the Volgodon Shipping Canal’s Gate No. 1. I felt honoured. They also asked me pen down my impressions in their visitors’ book which I did gladly.
We went for a nice walk after the museum visit, and came to the statue of Lenin, standing tall at 57 meters, built in 1952. It was the tallest personality statute in the world, until the Sardar Patel statue was built in Gujarat. Around the statue is a riverfront on one side, and a sprawling garden on the other. The river has a lock bridge, where couples scrawl their names on locks and fasten them onto the bridge. Lunch followed and I had a taste of cold soup popular here, called borscht.
In the evening, I threw a dinner party on a cruise boat for the Biking Queens participants, as we had completed half the journey. They all had a great time. Alex and Alina also joined us, at my request. It was a great evening with music, dance and rain. The shores on either side of the river, and a bridge going across it, were all lit up.
Volgograd to Moscow: 1,045 km
We were on the road to Moscow. The BQ riders said we could do it in a day, but I knew it wasn’t possible. The highways were dotted with sunflower beds on either side, bright yellow and smiling at us for hundreds of kilometres. By 8 pm, we had done 635 kms and had to retire for the evening.
We entered Moscow by 5.30 pm the next day, encountering traffic akin to our country. There was a surprise waiting for us. A Gujarati businessman, Jignesh Shah, invited us for dinner. Jigneshbhai, as we know him, treated us to home-cooked food. We had a good time. After we finished dinner, I told him that I had to go see some friends, but he requested me to cancel my plans. Jigneshbhai, a soft-spoken person, announced that we were all to go to the most happening nightclub at midnight—Baga Club Bar. Once in, we were driven by the music. What a fantastic time we had here; it was 6 am by the time we left.
Moscow to border of Latvia: 665 km, plus another 320
We took off from Moscow a bit late in the rain. Before the exit towards the border, the BQ riders and our photographer lost their way. We saw them pull over to the side—then immediately came multiple exits, so there was no way I could stop my car. They always ride ahead, and my car is a backup vehicle in case a bike gets spoilt. In Moscow’s fast-moving traffic it’s madness to stop off the road. The photographer, Imtiyaz Ansari, told me that the bike they were on turned right the rider, Sarika, got baffled and slowed down in the middle of the four lanes, with cars zipping at 140 kms speed. It was sheer luck she did not get hit and I thanked god for that. After waiting for them for 45 minutes, we moved ahead and waited at the next gas station where they arrived after an hour.
It was going to be one bad road to the border of Latvia, rain lashing for most of the 600 km.
Then the worst happened. We were 110 km short of the Russian border, and it was already 9 pm and getting dark. We saw that the BQ riders had stopped and were frantically waving us down. Jinal Shah, one of the BQ riders, had just noticed a hole in her backpack—and her passport and motorcycle papers were missing. They had either fallen from the backpack or been stolen in Moscow.
Jinal could not recall when she last saw the passport. A very important instruction I had given the riders from my past experiences, was to carry their important documents in their zipped, riding pant-pockets, and never in a pouch or bag. None of them followed these instructions.
I immediately rang up the reception of our Moscow hotel to ask if anyone had found the passport. They said no, and would check thoroughly and call back. In the meantime, I called Jigneshbhai and requested him to go to the hotel and ask in person. It was a grave situation. All the riders panicked and wept. I asked them to cool down, and that we would do all that was possible. I instructed the two other riders to go to the border with the photographer, and check in to the hotel. Jinal, the mechanic Honey and I went searching backwards along the highway. We drove more than 325 km up and down, searched at the spots she had stopped at, or thought she had stopped at, but found nothing. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, in the pitch dark with lashing rain, but we gave it a shot. We returned to the hotel at 6 am, having driven 985 km. The other rider, Sarika Mehta, had informed the Indian Embassy and asked them what should be done now.
We were meant to cross the border into Europe the next morning, but decided to stay back, as we had visas for three more days. Jinal would not be able to ride without a passport, so it was decided that the Indian Embassy would send a car to fetch her from the border. However, this was 665 km away, so I suggested they come mid-way, where we could drop Jinal and her luggage.
It was a heart-breaking situation. The Indian Embassy car arrived at 4 pm, and the riders hugged and cried one last time, to bid Jinal farewell. She put on a brave face. To cheer her up, I presented her with a gift for her son. She thanked me for everything.
Jinal was meant to go back to Moscow, but it would take many hours past midnight to reach. Jinal prefers not to ride at night due to her eyesight, so I suggested that she ride back with Honey Desai instead, who can ride fast and keep up with the Embassy’s car. Desai would catch a flight the next day from Moscow and join us in Vilnius, Lithuania. Desai got them there by 12.30 am, and from then on, Jinal would be free to decide what she wanted to do. The Indian Embassy got her a passport in a few days, and she flew back home safely, as we trudged ahead to the border of Latvia.
The author is a motorcycle enthusiast who realised his dream of riding across the world in his 50s, despite three heart attacks
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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