Cyclists finish Russian leg of trip after freezing night in Kursk jail

Posted Oct. 09, 2009, at 10 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

“Leave your stuff here,” the police officer says in Russian pointing to my tent and bicycle panniers lying next to a jail cell.

“Do you have any weapons?” he asks.

“No,” I reply as he frisks me.

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“Do you smoke?” he inquires.

“Of course not,” I say in my best Russian. “We’re athletes.”

The officer leads my friend Ellery Althaus and me to a prison cell and unlocks the door. It slams shut behind us as we step inside. We have just been jailed in the city of Kursk while cycling across Russia. Kursk is 283 miles southwest of Moscow.

My trip to Russia technically began on a gray morning last February with an AIDS test in West Harlem and ended in a cold prison cell in Eastern Europe seven months later. Nobody said cycling across Russia would be easy, but the feat requires more than just overcoming physical obstacles.

Foreigners cannot enter Russia as tourists for more than three months. Traveling across the country is at least a 6,000-mile trip on rough and often unpaved roads. With such time constraints, the trip is impossible on bicycle.

A response to an e-mail Ellery wrote last year to the Russian Cycling Federation in Moscow changed that.

“You can legally cycle across our country on year-long business visas,” a member of the Cycling Federation wrote. “Even if you aren’t conducting business in Russia, you can get the visas if your papers are in order. We can help you by writing the letter of invitation you need from a Russian organization in your visa application.”

Ellery and I arrived at the Russian Consulate in New York City to apply for our visas on a cold winter’s day. To our surprise, a sign outside informed us that we also had to submit to an AIDS tests with our paperwork.

With no time to waste, we ran wildly through New York looking for a place to get tested. Fifteen blocks later, we arrived breathless at an STD clinic in West Harlem, took a blood test, and returned to the consulate with papers proving we had tested negative for AIDS.

Standing outside the Russian Consulate of New York is like stumbling across a slice of Moscow jettisoned in Manhattan Island. It is a tradition that babushkas, or old Russian women, are allowed to cut in lines throughout Russia. Outside the consulate, a seething mass of babushka immigrants requesting consular services pushed against each other for the right of way.

As the consulate reopened for the afternoon, a meek consular worker peeked through the door.

“Admitting visa applicants!” he yelled.

The babushka mob pushed against him like a horde of Vikings attacking the consulate with a battering ram. Ellery and I slowly made our way through the chaotic milieu and submitted our applications and passports to the consulate staff.

We returned to the consulate the next morning and received our passports complete with yearlong Russian business visas. But to our dismay, the words “valid for only 90 of every 180 days” were printed on the visa.

“Don’t worry, that won’t be a problem,” a consular worker responded when we voiced concern that our visas might not let us stay in the country long enough to cycle across it.

There was no turning back now.

Seven months have passed and we’ve cycled 6,000 miles across Russia, experienced few problems, and met many helpful and friendly people. On a chilly afternoon last week, we gleefully rode into the city of Kursk. The Ukrainian border was now only 50 miles away. The next day we would enter a new country.

That day in Kursk

Today is a celebration. It is Kursk Day, the holiday that celebrates Kursk’s founding centuries ago. Crowds fill the streets, musicians perform in city parks, and merrymakers scream in the air.

Desperate for a shower after camping for five days, we enter Kursk’s central hotel to get a room before partaking in the festivities.

“Can I see your migration cards?” the hotel receptionist asks as we check in.

Migration cards are small pieces of paper foreigners receive when entering Russia. Last summer, a Siberian hotel lost Ellery’s card.

“You can’t stay here without it,” the receptionist says flatly. “Please sit down,” she insists while reaching for the phone.

The situation is not uncommon. Often the simplest things in Russia require alarming amounts of paperwork, and we assume she has called the hotel manager who will come to sign a waiver to let us stay here.

“Soon, I’ll be taking a hot shower,” I think.

Suddenly, Russian immigration officials in uniform enter the hotel, approach the receptionist, and inspect our documents. Police officers soon arrive followed by a tall man dressed in slacks and a suit jacket. The immigration officers hand him our documents. He reviews them with a scowl and approaches us.

“Ninety out of every 180 days,” he says, waving our passports at us. “What part of that don’t you understand?”

The man takes us to Kursk’s police station for questioning. Immigration officials there interrogate us, speaking Russian so fast we barely understand.

“Are you agents?” one asks irritably. “You know, like James Bond?”

Soon an English translator arrives, and we explain why we have overstayed our visas. The translator relates our story to the immigration officials and everyone soon warms up to us.

“A bicycle across Russia!” they exclaim. “Where do you sleep?” they ask, echoing the questions people typically have about cycle touring.

The interrogation lasts late into the night. We rode 85 miles in the rain and still haven’t eaten or changed out of our bike shorts. The translator explains that we have been detained, not arrested. Police officers lock us in a freezing cold jail cell for the night. I lie on a concrete bench barely wide enough for my body to fit on. Exhaustion overtakes me and I quickly fall asleep, awaking frequently to toss and turn and shiver.

The harsh grinding noise of the jail cell’s door opening the next morning awakens me. Ellery and I are both sick with colds from a night locked in jail with no blankets. Policemen follow protocol by taking our mug shots and fingerprints. We spend all day with immigration workers who file reports about us. Finally, they take us to Kursk’s courthouse and the translator arrives.

“A judge is reviewing your case,” he tells us.

“What will happen to us?” we ask.

“I think they are going to deport you to America for overstaying your visa,” he replies.

“So this is how it ends,” I think to myself while sitting outside Kursk’s courthouse with Ellery and the translator that afternoon. “Our bike trip is over.”

“What we did was amazing,” I say to Ellery consolingly. “We’re lucky that we made it so far.”

Suddenly, an immigration official arrives.

“He just talked to his superior,” the translator says. “They have agreed to let you go providing that you each pay a $130 fine for overstaying your visas.”

I almost cheer with happiness. We are free.

The final leg

The road from Kursk to the Ukrainian border passes through desolate wheat fields long since harvested and put to bed for winter. Harsh wind whips against me as I struggle to pedal forward. Former hardships of bike travel now seem nonexistent. I feel lucky just to be here, to see this, to continue. With a big goofy smile, I wave at a babushka selling potatoes by the roadside as I ride by. She smiles back.

Russia has been my home for seven months, and a deep feeling of transience overtakes me while nearing the border. The theme song for the national evening news, colloquialisms I use when talking to young people, letting old women cut in line, the intimate details of this strange land which have made this place feel like home are about to fade behind me instantaneously as I cross the border.

But there is no turning back.

We arrive at the Russian border with signed documents from immigration officials giving us clearance into Ukraine. The border guards glance at our papers, smirk at our bicycles and wave us through.

I take one glance back at the windswept Russian hills behind me and feel a mixed sense of triumph and nostalgia. We have accomplished something that, until the day before, seemed impossible. We are among the few people who have cycled across the world’s largest country.

Suddenly, a border guard hands me my passport and breaks my reverie.

“Welcome to Ukraine,” he says.

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