Vladimir was the first one we met, who to us after our lazy days in Russia, seemed like a super-human crazy man - all smiles and enthusiasm and then off down the road at 25km/h - we thought that was that - "Wow - we've met another cyclist!!" and went back to our lazy meandering day-dreaming and talking nonsense. He'd seemed to suggest that he had a friend who spoke English but we weren't really sure whether he was trying to tell us that he'd met other English people, 'Angliski, angliski' and pointing down the road. Later we caught up with Vladimir again and this time he was with 'The Professor' who did speak some English - last practised 30 years previously, he explained that they were a group of 10 cyclists (3 women, 6 men and a 13yr old girl) - they invited/insisted that we camped with them that night.
We'd cycled a little further than them and when the day reached 135km we were really too tired to go on, somehow the group got separated and 8 of us ended up camping in a beautiful spot by a river and had a great night. We spent the night with Yura, his daughter Masha, Rita, Dmitriy - the amazing translator, Vladimir and finally Victor - the doppelganger of my friend Phil in Manchester (or Mr Fire as we started calling him). They held us down and at gun point forced us to drink Vodka that Dmitriy and Vladimir had hunted down in a small village on the way, and we all spent a great evening talking/eating/drinking and nagging Dmitri to eat and stop trying to translate everything - he was brilliant and we always felt involved and never left out. They were very interested in us, our bikes, what we thought of Altai, Russia and them. We also wanted to know all about them and their journey.
The following day, Isa, Masha and I cycled off earliest (we're so organised and quick) and waited 50km later for everyone else at a small cafe. Again we couldn't find the other 4 members of their group, we'd seen them, waved and the others had missed them completely, so the group was still small. That afternoon it rained constantly and by 95km we were drenched, cold and a little miserable. To our absolute amazement Youri and Vladimir went a little ahead of us and managed to persuade the Director of a village school to give us the keys and let us sleep there. When we got out of the rain we ran around excitedly like small children, exploring the 8 classrooms, the gym with crashmats to sleep on, the kitchen, the cloakrooms for drying clothes, the warm showers and even watched the Olympics on TV in the staffroom (Russia beat Bulgaria at volleyball). Incredibly, as the remaining 4 members of the group cycled through the village, even more drenched a couple of hours later, the people in the village spotted them and sent them to the school as well, so we were all reunited again. This would never have happened in England.....allowing 12 strangers to have the keys for a school.
We again had a great meal of soup, sausages, salad, rice, beer, vodka, and mead and were joined by the Director of the school and her husband, and from our group Alla and Vladimir led the enthusiastic singing of Russian songs inbetween loads of toasts made in that fantastic communal Russian way, before finally crashing out on the crash mats all over the school, some on the stage, some in the science lab and the rest in the gym.
The following morning the Principal arrived again and we were interviewed in a classroom on video for the rest of the school and the local Altai teachers. We answered questions about Russia, Altai, the school, our journey etc and then later they filmed us and our bikes and asked us about them in great detail. We then shook lots of hands, took several pictures and headed off towards Biysk.
That night after a typical Simon and Isa lazy day, visiting a local writers house (Shooshkin!), time in cafes and sitting around on hills, we arrived in Biysk and camped incredibly, in the centre of town on the banks of the river - something I wouldn't recommend in Manchester.....we learned more about crazy Victor and Youra who had both done ultramarathon's in the past, Vladimir and his aquarium business (who also knows more songs than Bob Dylan), Vitor's Estonian passport that had allowed him to travel a bit in Central Asia..... Isa got on really well with Rita who gradually started to remember all her high school English (last spoken 25 years previously) and we also learned that Masha goes to a Russian sports-school.
Everyone was so friendly, kind and generous and refused to let us pay for anything however hard we tried. We had a brilliant 3 days with some like-minded people (cycling is a great people filter) and the following morning we woke up early and wished them luck on their two day train journey back to their town - the home of Lada. It was sad to say goodbye and hopefully we'll see some of them again someday.
Here are some pictures of our experience: