Cycling Programme Manager James Adkin recently had the chance to cycle the route of our Cycle Russia - Moscow to St. Petersburg holiday. Here he shares his thoughts on the experience.
"Growing up in the cold war period on a diet of western propaganda sparked my interest in Russia. I always wondered what life must have been like behind the iron curtain. The fading memory of the Soviet Union has of course been replaced by Putin’s rule, but I leapt at the chance to finally visit and inspect our brand new Cycle Russia trip ahead of the arrival of our first groups this summer.
Russia is big; spanning nine time zones and covering more than one-eighth of the world’s inhabited land area, it is by far the largest country in the world. Our journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg covers a small but culturally and historically important slice of Russia. We head into ‘unseen Russia’ – travelling overland by bus with a sprinkling of cycle rides past endless forest, massive lakes, Orthodox monasteries and many towns and villages with unpronounceable names.
I plunged straight into Moscow from the airport, tackling the rush hour metro to reach our hotel in the 1980 Olympic ‘village’. I soon learnt that each metro station is impressive and different and that Russian’s don’t smile too much - but they are really friendly and helpful when approached (every word is in Cyrillic so I soon needed help!). Moscow is a great city with too many highlights to list here but I recommend seeing as much as you can by foot and not to miss Red Square at night.
Cycle tourism is a completely novel idea in Russia so I was curious and keen to get on one of the brand new Kalkhoff hybrid bikes. Away from the busy cities, the routes we cycled were pleasant and quiet throughout and we gradually built a picture of rural Russia - pedalling past farmlands, forests and small villages with typical, brightly painted wooden houses. Heavily potholed sections were frequent but easy to navigate on the bikes and most of the cycling was on the flat with some gentle hills thrown in.
Modern life in Russia revolves around petrodollars and away from agriculture so we cycled past many abandoned farmlands and forgotten villages where the young have uprooted for the cities. Relics of the soviet period dot the landscape with old community centres and collective farm buildings. The village shops made for interesting rest stops, stocking more booze than food and still using an abacus, they were a great opportunity for translated chat with the locals about times past and present.
In the evenings we toasted with shots of vodka. The food was interesting but it is wise to have modest expectations and in any case I doubt anyone books Russia for the food. Pancake, sour cream, soup and potato fans will be as happy as the vodka lovers. The smoked fish was excellent though and you can find anything you want in the big cities.
Slowly but surely we made our way across the country. Our fifth and final cycle ride was a real highlight that took us via Russia’s first monastery (which felt like a 1000-year-old fridge in April!) to the impressive kremlin walls and old town of Veliky Novogorod – one-time capital of Russia.
Our journey ended all too quickly in magnificent St. Petersburg. Blessed with a wealth of museums, palaces, art, architecture and culture you could spend weeks here and it made a perfect finale to our trip, contrasting nicely with Moscow and everything in between. Again it is best seen on foot, though we did see Boris bikes and even some cycling commuters on the roads - they're either impossibly brave or stupid. Save some energy and time for the incredible art collection and Tsar’s Palace at the Hermitage and the views from St Isaac’s cathedral give a bird’s eye view of this amazing city."
Follow in James' footsteps on Cycle Russia - Moscow to St. Petersburg