A recent highlight of my trip, was the Russian motorcycle festival that went to a couple of days ago.
It started in Kazakhstan, where we spent our last night at the club house of the bike club in Semey. The bike clubs in the part of the world are something else, usually having some form of club house, ranging from super luxurious and packed with high tech toys, to dusty rooms above a workshop.
The club house at Semey was towards basic end of this scale, but the folks took extremely good care of us. It's odd how these things come about; we went into town with the idea of getting online for an hour before crossing the border. A chap noticed the bikes outside and came in to meet us. He spoke very little English, but made up for it with enthusiasm for motorcycles.
We got the gist of the situation; that he wanted us to follow him on his old Ural, not sure where.
Again, these situations are odd, and often have me in fits of laughter. We've been taken to this battered little industrial estate, and we're not sure what's expected of us, or what these guys want to provide. Wild gesticulation and drawings on scraps of cardboard are usually the key to finding out.
We were given safe parking for the bikes, then assigned an empty office room to crash in.
Soon a couple of interpreters were dragged over, and by evening we've got a crowd of people together. A big box of beer turns up, along with roast chicken, cakes, a guitar and more hairy Ural riders. A friendly hippy chap arrives, that reminds us of Danny from 'Withnail and I' and produces joints from his magic hat.
A good night unfolds, and all the better for being unexpected. We're also told of this bike festival that's about to kick off just over the border.
The next day we roll into the town we've been pointed to in Russia. Reluctantly we pick up a police escort, and in a bid to lose them, dive into a local shop for supplies. Incredibly, one of the ladies working there speaks excellent English, and after about an hours banter, we're all set with festival rations, and a local biker has been summoned to lead us to the festival.
He first takes us to his house, where a large meal is set ready for us on the table, steaming hot. We feast, and are then led down ever smaller country lanes to the site.
Our guide does extremely well on his big sports tourer, our enduro bikes are far better suited to the mud and wet grass.
So the festival unfolds.
We spend three days and 2 nights at this scene of chaotic bizarreness.
It's a small scale thing, less than 200 people I would guess. Real festival feel, even had the mandatory downpour on day 2, giving good chance for a breather.
Mostly it was just bikers camping in a couple of fields between 2 lakes. But there's a makeshift stage, a sauna building has been lashed together, a bar, few tents selling food, a large diving board structure and a horse.
Russians like to drink. This is a given, but put them in festival mode and things get silly. We were force fed alcohol from the moment we emerged from our tents. No scratch that, we were woken up, summoned by name, with loud encouragements to drink. I effectively spent 3 days at this place, and spent not a single rouble. 99% of the people were intrigued, kind, friendly and hugely generous. We enjoyed celebrity status, and by the time we left, lots of people knew us be name. Everywhere we went we'd be accosted, and some crazy new chapter of the party would begin.
After a few drinks on the Friday night, Simon and I have a go on the Banya, a wood fired sauna knocked up from scrap wood and bits of stuff. Pitch black inside, a naked Russian wandered about inside spanking everyone with a hand full of leafy branches. Sessions of sweating and getting spanked, alternated with plunges into the cool lake.
Naked spanker let up for a few minutes, and I asked “Do you want me, to spank you now?” a scenario that had me in fits of giggles.
Russians are militant in their efforts to make you drink. The challenge in these situations, is to refuse enough of these offers to stay alive.
For me, the festival was made up of a series of strange chapters, punctuated with vodka.
We noticed a chap doing a top end re-build on an ancient old Russian 2 stroke bike. Piston rings welded into the hugely deformed piston, and being freed with a large hunting knife. The chap spent the rest of the festival ragging this poor old bike round, then nursing it back to life when it died.
At one stage I found myself supporting the bike, surrounded by a crowd of 40+, while matey gently removed the two exhausts and rear pegs with an axe. This had the desired effect, and allowed him to gun the bike full speed at a ramp, and into the lake.
It was later dragged out with a tractor, refurbished Russian style, and I was allowed a spin.
A guy turned up next to our camp in an MPV. His supplies consisted of 40 bottles of vodka, no water or food, just booze. He gave us a bottle, and I started a game, touring the site with a shot glass, and trying to distribute the bottle as quickly as possible.
This was great fun, and earned me entrance into all kinds of funny situations, I was rewarded with counter offers of booze, food, and gifts.
A tug of war tournament developed, and when our British trio won a round, the crowd went wild, and we were encouraged to give a winning speech over the PA system, and awarded prizes.
Sunday morning we were woken to the noise of a huge drunken biker unloading a semi-auto shotgun, at bottles being thrown in the air.
A chap calmly explained they were going to destroy a car, that it would either be torched or maybe blown up.
The local police turned up, and were taken into the shashlick tent, plied with food, and enough money changed hands to ensure that things continued without a hitch.
Strippers took to the stage late Saturday night, and this was the only point at which any order was enforced. Big Russian heavies kept the crowd from the stage, and enforced a no-photos rule.
Organisers came round collecting money for entrance to the event, but were were handed the laser-etched dog-tag style tickets, and our money was refused. Handing us his card, the organiser stressed that if we had any problems at all, we should let him know, and he'd get it sorted.
By Sunday morning we were in tatters, and Russian visa protocol meant it was sensible to crack on and get into Mongolia. We packed up our gear amid shouts of disapproval.
Everyone was keen we have at least a single shot of vodka for the road, and were visibly hurt when we took a hard-line stance against the idea. Two folks were particularly keen to get something down us, and even tried convincing us they has non-alcoholic beer for situations like this.