Photos by Sherman & Polina Nazareth
As with all great adventures, this one stemmed from pure coincidence. The idea was to get lost in the vast northlands of Russia and behold the unending swathes of untarnished wilderness. Despite having my jaw drop in wonder and awe countless times in our breathtakingly beautiful Himalayas, little did I know I was about to be given a humbling lesson in sheer distance and scale. I’ve been visiting my wife, Polina, in her homeland, Russia, since we started dating back in 2013. But that was mostly within Moscow city. Magnificent and humongous as they are, cities aren’t really my thing. As a bit of a self-confessed loner, I crave isolation far from civilisation; the old way of life, the planet as it should be.
After having put up with my absolute nonsense for ten whole years, Polina (the woman deserves a Nobel Peace Prize) and I decided it was finally time to grow up and get married. So we did in January 2023 in Goa, where we live now and run a riding gear store called Moto Wilder. Once that madness was done with and the dust settled, she suggested we make a trip to Russia to meet her family and friends that couldn’t make it for the wedding. And that’s when it hit me. Social as I may be (not!), why not squeeze a little ride in there?
As with all great rides into the unknown, one of the stages I like the most is the planning. It all started with first finding a motorcycle I could rent around Moscow. With the ride being in Russia, I thought nothing would be more authentic than a Ural through the motherland. As it turns out, Urals are pretty expensive to rent and they’re more for novelty day rides rather than an actual multi-day ride. I tried getting in touch with Ural Russia, but it turned out that they’d shifted the motorcycle manufacturing plant to Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan, back in 2022. So that was a bust.
A little more digging about the terrain led me to figure out most of the landscape around Moscow is flat. Not something you look forward to as a motorcyclist. So I started looking at the area around St. Petersburg instead. Being the cultural capital of Russia, it was already well embedded in my bucket list. And as Kartik pointed out when I mentioned the ride, it’s also a sister city to Mumbai, the city I grew up in.
That’s when I stumbled across the nearby Karelia region, just north and west of Lake Ladoga, and started to do my research about it. Aside from it being dotted with hills and countless lakes, it turns out it has an unimaginably fascinating history steeped in Viking lore. It was once a part of Sweden and then Finland, and bore witness to one of the bloodiest battles in human history — the Winter War (no, I did not steal that from Marvel).
Fortunately, it was a lot easier to find rental motorcycles in St. Petersburg than in Moscow. The way I calculated the rental budget? The cheaper the motorcycle I hired, the more days I could stay out on the road. After a fair bit of digging, I settled on a Honda Transalp 650. This old V-twin ADV workhorse with a 21-inch front wheel would be perfect for the back-country roads in the Karelia region and was well within my budget. It was pretty easy to do the Rouble-Rupee conversion since the currencies hold an almost identical value against the dollar, and ₹ 5500 per day seemed like a pretty decent deal.
Now that finding the motorcycle was out of the way, let me introduce you to our riding comrades — Anton Shumakher and his wife, Lara. Anton visited my store after my wedding and decided to buy two sets of riding kits for himself and his wife from there. It would take a few days to get the kits together and so we stayed in touch, with Polina dismantling the language barrier. As with all riders, we got talking about motorcycles and seemed to be on pretty much the same wavelength when it came to motorcycles, music and living the old way. I helped Anton out with some bank work he was having a spot of trouble with. And one barbecue session later, we became friends.
At this point, Anton and Lara had moved back to Russia and were also living in St. Petersburg at the time. I’d mentioned at some point to Anton we’d be riding out of St. Petersburg, but he was tied up with other matters on those dates. Then, five days before the ride, while we were already in Moscow, he called to say he’d cleared out his schedule and that he’d be joining us on the ride with Lara. To be honest, aside from being glad to have him for company, I was relieved to have someone around who’d ridden in the region before. Like I said at the beginning, everything falling into place was pure coincidence.
Onward to Leningrad
One day, as we waited on the sidewalk for our comrades, a certain spectacle of a motorcycle approached us, all the other vehicles on the road giving it a pretty wide berth. Anton and Lara rolled up on a ’93 Honda Gold Wing with a full JBL system blaring some classic Russian rock, bearing grins as wide as the motorcycle itself. Being reunited with our Goan buds halfway up the world certainly was a special feeling. Being in the presence of an immaculately maintained GL1500 with a massive flat-six made it even more so. Pure, solid metal and build quality that would put warships to shame. And the fact that this motorcycle still looked pretty modern despite it now being 30 years old!
Now it was finally time to check on my ride. We walked through the busy streets as the rental place wasn’t too far away. So far St. Petersburg had a more upbeat, arty sort of vibe. It certainly felt livelier and warmer than Moscow. The intricate detail in the colossal architecture is something that I still marvel at. As we walked through the narrow alleyways, I could finally see my steed in the distance. A ’03 Honda XL 650V Transalp that bore battle scars from all its adventures over the years. Ah well, at least it was 10 years younger than Anton’s Gold Wing.
One thing I learned early on was that Google Maps is pretty ineffective in a country like Russia. On just the ride from the hotel to the supermarket on the edge of the city, Google showed me routes on roads that didn’t even exist. It was only when we got to the supermarket that I was introduced to Yandex — basically Russia’s version of Reliance, Google and Facebook all mashed into one. What surprised me more was the shopping we were about to do. We stocked up on everything from meat, cold cuts and vegetables, to milk, assorted breads, fuel and even water. And I still wondered if this was all really necessary. Anyway, Anton’s Gold Wing had compartments that would probably put Narnia to shame, so I didn’t really complain.
Finally, and thank you for sticking around so far, we were out of St. Petersburg and on the open road heading North East; this was the St. Petersburg-Murmansk highway. Yes, that same Murmansk with the Aurora Borealis, and the world’s first nuclear powered ice-breaker ship, Lenin. As we rode to the east of the massive Lake Ladoga, Polina and I were pretty sure we now knew what being inside a pinball machine felt like. Although we were holding average speeds of about 100 kph on a wide-open motorway, it felt nothing like 100 kph anywhere else in the world.
The cross winds were just relentless and unending. The fact that the Transalp had a top-box and saddlebags meant just more surface area to catch wind on. I was definitely missing a taller touring windscreen, though; the buffet of bugs on my helmet was a testament to that. Polina had simply wedged herself between the top-box and myself, and was off in her own fantasy land in her head. Anton and Lara, on the other hand, were leisurely sipping on coffee from their cupholders, while the Gold Wing was in cruise mode, grooving to music, the heaters keeping it toasty, and that massive windscreen providing a cocoon of comfort. Well, just the right tool for the task at hand, I suppose.
The further north we rode, the colder it got. The highways were just spectacular, though. Impeccable surfaces, extremely polite, alert and aware drivers, well-planned intersections; it really made me wonder if that highway rodeo we all do back home is even worth all the stress and countless near-death experiences. We had a pretty short ride that day, just about 210 km. Which, as it turned out, is about a two-and-a-half-hour ride on Russian highways.
We were riding to Shamoksha, but were staying at a little lodge in a village on the outskirts of town. Nestled in the woods beside a tiny off-shoot of the mighty Svir river that connects Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, the two largest freshwater lakes in Europe and second only to the gargantuan Lake Baikal within Russia. The serenity and isolation of the place simply absorbed me once we got there. I couldn’t help myself from imagining a peaceful retirement here amongst the duckweeds and pine trees.
Our cabin was pretty spacious and homely. It had two bedrooms, a living room with the works, and it cost a mere 6000 Roubles for the night. But that’s when all the packing Anton had done suddenly made sense to me. There were no shops around, none that I saw on the way in. No restaurants, either. But the lodge did have a barbecue grill with firewood ready, and I’m always a sucker for a good barbecue session. Anton’s portable flame torch he’d carried with him made quick work of getting the fire started.
So, while he was busy with the grill and the meats, it was my turn to pull out a little surprise I was carrying with me. Instead of tools and useful survival stuff, I was carrying the one thing the Goan in me wouldn’t let me leave home without. Yep, you guessed that right — feni! Anton and Lara were pretty pleased, too, since I’d made them try some of the good stuff back in Goa. After a lovely evening of sitting by the fireside, it was time to call it a night as the next day’s ride would be a hard one.
The Transalp had been just flawless so far, but a little handlebar adjustment was needed before we headed out. Good thing that Anton had enough tools on his motorcycle to probably rebuild one. We were heading towards Mount Vottovaara, nestled in the Karelian mountains, roughly 425 km away, and we rode out on a frosty morning. It was back to the pinball effect on the highway and I couldn’t wait to get off it and onto the backroads. On our fuel stops, though, the cost totally blindsided me — roughly ₹ 51 for 95 octane petrol! This trip was turning out to be more budget-friendly than any of the rides I’d done in India in the recent past.
For lunch we stopped at one of the road-side cafes and helped ourselves to some much-needed soup and wholesome meat cutlets. Although it provided some proper relief from the cold, I could really live with this kind of cuisine. Another hour on the highway and finally we were at the turn-off from the main highway. Salvation! This is where the Transalp came into its element, gracefully gliding through the narrow winding roads that snaked through the forests and villages.
Then, about 200 km out from Vottovaara, the road turned into a dirt trail, more of a fire road. Utopia! While Anton was somehow managing to keep his almost 550-kg mass of the fully loaded Gold Wing, himself and Lara upright (probably thanks to his prior motocross experience), I was simply cruising through. This is what the Transalp was made for. I was more than impressed — this was a 210-kg motorcycle loaded with luggage, Polina and myself, and we were easily holding speeds of 80-90 kph on a dirt road. In contrast, Anton was safely managing just about 30-40 kph.
Well, that’s what you get with a 21-inch front wheel, a great suspension setup and a buttery smooth carburetted 647cc V-twin motor. This setup would be perfect for India, I thought. None of those nosy electronics and gimmicky gadgets to go AWOL in the middle of nowhere, and a pretty friendly overall size. This is the type of motorcycle we’ve always needed.
The final climb towards Vottovaara was a tiring one. It was already starting to get dark and cold. The vastness of this region had me stifled and immensely content at the same time. We’d gone over an hour of riding and hadn’t crossed another car, motorcycle or village. This was actual wilderness. We put up at the only camp in that region for the night. With a 2°C air temperature outside, this was the coldest we’d experienced so far. And might I remind you, this was spring time. Well, another self-cooked dinner at the camp’s vacant canteen and it was time for some much-needed rest.
The next morning was a cold one. While Anton was busy loading up his Gold Wing, I found a little walking trail that I decided to explore with the Transalp. What I found was a lonely lake nestled in the hills in the middle of nowhere. The water in this lake looked unusually black; as it turns out, most of the rivers and lakes in this region have black water because of the silt-type soil and decomposing bark and leaves from surrounding trees that release tannins into the water. Again, I took a moment to just soak in the isolation and the scent of the peaceful pine trees.
We were back on the trails heading south towards Porosozero. The landscape was again dotted with countless little bogs and rivers. With zero pollution in this region, the saturation of the blue in the sky was mesmerising. Little abandoned log-cabins from the pre-war era lay ignored by the wayside. These were clearly of Finnish construction because they looked quite different from any of the Russian cabins I’d seen so far. It was like an entire Viking fantasy unfolding before me. As we got further south, semblances of tar roads started to make their presence felt. When we stopped in one of the small towns called Suoyarvi to grab a bite, Lara decided to get us some traditional Karelian liqueur made from cloudberry and some local Karelian pies for later that night. What struck me the most in this sleepy old town was the locals’ eyes; a hue of blue so striking, it was like vibrant turquoise flames dancing in their eyes.
A few more hours of some stunning, winding country roads and we were back on the highway towards Sortavala. This is a town situated on the northern banks of Lake Ladoga that is steeped in history. It was at some point a part of Sweden, Finland and finally Russia; another sleepy old town where the leisurely pace of the locals reminded me somewhat of Goa. We made a quick pit-stop in town to restock on groceries and headed towards Krasnaya Gorka, one of the islands just outside the main city. Of course, the most pleasant surprise of the day was when we got to our cabin for the night. It wasn’t just some regular homely wood-cabin. After unloading the motorcycles and trekking down towards the banks of the lake with the luggage, it became more apparent. We’d be staying in a floating wood-cabin on the lake. Perfection!
The owner was a bubbly old fellow who used to be a professional martial artist. Every square inch of this cabin had some little titbit that told a story of its own. From the local Russian herbs hanging on the wall to the little bicycle-type broomstick out on the front porch, this place was oozing character. It even had a banya, a traditional Russian sauna with a wood stove that’s an integral part of Russian culture. As Anton and I sipped on tea and watched the sun reluctantly set over the tremendous Lake Ladoga, little did we know it was already close to 10 p.m. The passage of time in a place this peaceful and this far north is deceptive to say the least. Once the sun finally did set, the golden hour lingered on until about 11 p.m.
The next day was our rest day, no riding. And boy, am I glad we decided to choose this location to spend it at. As I sat and looked out over the lake at the little port in Sortavala, while the steam boats chugged on by, I couldn’t help but wonder at the actual size of Lake Ladoga. At 17,891 square kilometres, it’s just slightly larger than Kuwait, and roughly five times the size of Goa! I had a whole new perception of scale bouncing around in my noggin. We spent the morning fishing from the lake house and caught a whole lot of little freshwater fish, using nothing but slightly soaked bread as bait. Smelt, roach and carp bream were what the catch mostly consisted of.
The abundance of fish was shocking. The hooks dangled for not longer than ten seconds in the water before the nibbles started. That’s when Anton and I decided to up the game a little. We used some of the fish we caught as bait and started targeting the predatory species. Turns out those are a lot rarer on the banks and more common in deeper water. All we could manage were two measly European perches. Post lunch, I let the Goa life get the better of me and decided it was siesta time. Unfortunately, the rest of the gang followed suit and when I woke up in the evening, our bucket had been ransacked by the seagulls and ducks.
We got back to work, filling that bucket up slowly, again. Once we had our fill of the fishing, Lara was kind enough to gut and clean the catch. The small fish she coated in batter and deep fried. The larger fish, Anton decided to use to treat us to Ukha, a traditional, hardy Russian smoked fish soup with a few condiments and veggies chucked in. Since we couldn’t actually smoke the fish, he set a log on fire, added vodka and stirred the pot with the cinders. He even made some buckwheat with beef to top it off. This was definitely one of the nicest meals I’ve had.
Back to Base
The next morning we had a roughly 270 km ride back to St. Petersburg, back to the land of Dostoevsky and Pushkin. As was getting to be the norm, the ride was spectacular; winding through the lakes and serene landscapes of the region. The last bit was back to a straightforward motorway. But as with getting into any city, we encountered some gridlock traffic that we snaked our way through. Once actually inside the city the riding was actually fun. There wasn’t much traffic, and Anton’s Gold Wing was back to belting out some Russian rock that we got an earful of every time we stopped at a red light.
As with any motorcycle you have such a lovely time with, it was hard to say goodbye to the Transalp as we got to the rental place. The adventure had come to a close. It was far more epic than I’d imagined. And despite all the planning, it was all pure coincidence that allowed this ride to materialise. To wind down, we decided to meet up the next day and explore the canals of St. Petersburg. To say this place is picture-perfect is a dire understatement. There’s such a wealth of culture, landscape and history that I feel like my mind opened up to a whole new dimension of information; far from the urine-soaked alleyways and vodka-soaked degenerates that Hollywood portrays Russia to be all about. It’s just the language barrier in mainstream media that’s kept this place so misunderstood and misinterpreted.
I walk away from this episode fascinated and stupidly eager to explore more of this place. From the humility of the people to the sheer massiveness of everything, there’s definitely a few more regions of Russia that are firm on my bucket list.
The Last Coincidence
After this Russian motorcycle adventure, I’m now the official Indian representative for the Baltic Rally Motorcycle Festival, the next edition of which will happen between 18th-21st July 2024 in St. Petersburg. It’s Russia’s biggest motorcycle festival; basically, Russia’s version of Sturgis. I won’t say India Bike Week or MotoVerse because I think this crowd’s a little more about having fun rather than blowing engine valves and melting pistons for no good reason. Join me this coming July as we represent India in Russia. For more information, visit https://balticrally.ru/en or email me at email@example.com.