Location: Bashkiria, Russia
Author: Jago Leckie
Tour de Bashkiria
Our co-founder recently travelled to the Russian republic of Bashkortostan for a short trip on two wheels with some friends. Despite being warned about everything from ticks to bears, the region (in parts) turned out to be a cycling backpacker’s paradise…
Where is Bashkiria?
Situated between the river Volga and the Ural mountains - the mountain range widely recognised as the conventional boundary between Europe and Asia - Bashkortostan is a hidden gem that is largely undiscovered by the cycling world. That being said, you will need to plan your trip carefully. Often the smooth tarmac roads (some of the best that I have ever ridden on) can turn, quite abruptly, into gravel and clay tracks that are difficult to navigate on any type of bike. Being tourists, we had failed to take this into account and were forced to learn the hard way. By the end of the trip my brand new Pinarello Gan was making noises that I had never heard a bike make. Fortunately it’s currently in the bike shop for a service, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been enjoying the time I’ve had out of the saddle since I got back from the trip.
We arrived in the capital city, Ufa, on a warm Saturday evening- full of optimism about the trip ahead. We flew in from Moscow with our bikes, and between us had everything from a mountain bike, to a carbon fibre road bike (a mistake not to be repeated). Our route had already been roughly planned out with the help of a ‘Bashkiria by bike’ type travel guide that had been gifted to us beforehand. We intended to take a minibus out to Chelyabinsk Oblast, and then to cycle the 225km (ish) back to Ufa airport over the next two days, where our bike bags were waiting for us in storage.
On Sunday morning we met our driver, a slim middle-aged man from the neighbouring republic of Tatarstan, who, whilst happy to meet four foreigners, was slightly confused about our intentions to travel across Bashkiria by bike. We drove out east across Bashkiria, and eventually made it to the border with Chelyabinsk. We had planned to start our bike trip at a set of caves recommended to us, located on the river Sim, just outside the small settlement of Kropachevo.
After exploring the picturesque caves (see photos) we quickly got changed (al fresco) into our cycling kit and began our journey. However - and despite google maps suggesting otherwise - the gravel paths soon gave way to an off-road track that was impossible to navigate on a mountain bike, let alone by road bike. (At this point I was starting to feel like a bit of an idiot). Just 10km into the journey, our spirits were drained as we hobbled down an ominous looking valley with our bikes on our shoulders.
Eventually, and after a lot of moaning on my behalf, we found a road which took us through some small villages and back across the Bashkir border. As we reached the town of Eral, another obstacle presented itself. The paperback guide that we had brought along on our trip indicated that there was another stretch of ‘off-road’- something that we had assumed pre-trip would be gravel/cobble-stone. Myself and Evan, looking for any excuse whatsoever to stop, decided that we would try and hitch a ride across this stretch of wet rock/clay/mud surface, while Tom and Pjotr, whose bikes were more suitable for the journey, soldiered on.
We approached a local man in the village we had just passed to ask if there might be anyone who could drive us 10km up the road. Bewildered by the presence of foreigners on bikes in his village, he proceeded to lecture us on Western interference in Russia, before kindly agreeing to help. As he began to call his friends - and after a lot of cursing - he informed us that, given the annual May holidays that precede WWII Victory Day in Russia, it was unlikely that anyone would be sober enough to drive us safely to the main road. At that moment an old lady walked past and shouted over to our new acquaintance that ‘Vasya had been drunk for two days and had lost his cow’. By this point myself and Evan had fully resigned ourselves to a lifetime in that Russian village searching for Vasya’s cow.
Help did eventually arrive. And after lazily packing two bikes into the boot of a tired-looking Lada, we met a deflated Tom and Pjotr on the highway. A quick stop to refuel and we were back on the road. Much to our delight we were met by some of the most beautiful, and, more importantly, cyclist-friendly roads that I have ever been on. The roads, which ran adjacent to the river Sim, were smooth, traffic-free, and, thanks to them, by the time we arrived in Asha that evening we had almost entirely forgotten about the trials and tribulations of earlier that day.
The evening was spent in a pleasant ski lodge in the not-so-pleasant town of Asha. After eating a meal prepared for us by our extremely hospitable Armenian hosts, we took a short trip to the on-site Banya before going to bed.
On the second day we needed to cover approximately 100km back to a town called Iglino, which is a short drive away from Ufa airport. We set out early that morning in order to give ourselves plenty of time to navigate potentially difficult ‘off-road’ sections of the route, or, in myself and Evan’s case, find alternative means of transport. We were, however, pleasantly surprised to find that the route planned was almost entirely on smooth tarmac roads that were, bizarrely, occasionally littered with dead snakes. On the whole though, the day passed quickly, and, aside from Evan’s permanent hunger, with little difficulty. We arrived at our destination at around 16:00 - about an hour ahead of schedule - and headed to the local cafe for a couple of well earned beers.
Overall it was not only an incredibly enjoyable trip, but also one that I would recommend to anyone who might happen to be travelling through Russia by bike. We all saw parts of the country that we knew very little about, and were greeted by friendly faces on every leg of the journey (unfortunately we never found out what happened to Vasya’s cow). Bashkiria is often referred to by its locals as the ‘Switzerland of Russia’. Its deep valleys are filled with clear water springs that run adjacent to silky tarmac roads - which, in my opinion, makes it the perfect destination for a trip on two wheels.
Caves at Kropachevo.
Some bad roads..
... and some good ones.
Views from the caves at Kropachevo.
A warm greeting in the first village we passed through.