September 7, 2003 - V’as’ma 175k/107m***

8 September 2003
V’as’ma, Russia
175km, 107 miles ***

OK. Worst hotels of your life – think for a moment. Charlie and I are debating the point, as four of the past five nights we’ve stayed in what I’ve come to call “hell holes”. Charlie thinks the Rossia Hotel in Smolensk was worst – he had a bad case of bed bugs. I vote for tonight, in V’as’ma..

I don’t know the name of this “hotel”. It’s 9:39pm. I left Charlie, Alexandr and Yuri at the restaurant (it merits a description too long to fit here) 2 blocks away and came back to the “hotel” in the rain. I walked past the three “ladies” in the bar in spite of their protestations. The “lady” on the stairwell said something in Russian, I said “English”, she said “sex – 3 dollars”. ($3 = approximately 100 Russian rubles). I said no, spaciba. A few moments later she knocked on the door and said “2 dollars”.

Let’s do some visuals here before we proceed further. First, the hotel – that little sign next to the door might say hotel, but it could be a cyanide plant for all I know. The blast proof steel entry doors were not a comfort.

This is Charlie and Alexandr checking in. They talk to the two people behind the windows through a tiny opening. The decorative metal on the windows are not decoration, they are security bars.

To get to your room you need to pass through this metal gate, which was locked when I just came back in. Some staff person let me pass (but that doesn’t mean anything, because they clearly let non-residents pass.)

Here’s two photos of my room. The peeling paint, mosquitoes (not visible in the photo), lack of telephone, lack of toilet and shower, and 40 year old TV are real (6 push button channels, 3 of which are showing the same program – a children’s foam character thing, and one of which has nothing).

Ahhh, I missed the radio.

Every (dive joint) hotel in Belarus and Russia has had one of these single station, unique plug in devices with a single knob for volume. God only knows what the people are saying on it. And semi-finally, the view from my room. The glare is the setting sun and the reality of everything you see is far more decrepit than the photo.

There are some merits to this place – like a la carte pricing. You pay so much for your room. If you want to use the toilet, you pay more. The shower – more. Towels are also an extra charge item, but you get a cool printed receipt with a special stamp, a bunch of writing and a signature. For reasons I can’t fathom, ladies in uniform knock on my door and demand another 100 rubles. (This is a different currency from Belarusian rubles which trade at (as of 9/5) 2,100 to the dollar and depreciate at around 5% per month. Belarusian rubles are considered toilet paper in Russia.)

Speaking of toilets, the two in the men’s bathroom in this hotel are a rip off. No toilet seat. A string to flush. No toilet paper. (I’m sparing you the photo). At least it’s on the same floor as my room. The shower’s downstairs. To bring things even more into focus – the chambermaid.

She’s adding up all the surcharges on the abacus (no kidding). Will she kill me with a knife tonight? Your guess is as good as mine. All the hotels in formerly USSR countries have these battle-axe chambermaids. The one in Barysau was there at 11pm in her red sweater, and there at 7am in the same sweater – but that’s a different story. Oh – and here’s the “café” off the lobby with the “ladies” in it. I took this picture when we were checking in.

My clothes are wet, hanging in a locked room at the end of the hall. The chambermaids have them. As near as I can tell (and again, I’m not kidding here) there are no dryers in the former USSR other than perhaps in big hotels in big cities like Minsk. In fact, digressing only a bit, there’s not much in the way of electricity in these cities. They either don’t have the generating capacity or can’t afford it. In any case, when the satellites pass overhead at night even over places like Brest, Baranavicy, Orsha and V’as’ma, they’ll photograph a darkness that belies the mass of the underbelly of humanity therein.

It’s currently nine degrees centigrade and raining outside. By morning it will be colder. I told Charlie I’ll ride wet or cold, but not wet and cold. He may not ride at all. But we have to get out of here. Alexandr says tomorrow, in Mozajsk, will be the same type of accommodations as tonight. What to do, what to do? Among other things, I and Charlie hit the bathroom in the restaurant – Charlie stole the toilet paper – really. BTW, there’s no heat here either – until November.

The town. You want to know about V’as’ma? Let’s make this quick. Here’s the Lenin, a downtown commercial building, and the church.

We did, actually, ride our bikes today. It was our longest distance of this trip – about 180km/111mi (Charlie) and 170km (me). I had a flat and it took more than the anticipated 10-15 minutes to fix it, so to avoid delaying the long riding day I had Yuri and Alexandr catch me up to Charlie. (He didn’t wait for the 5 minutes to get my bike off the car, so I didn’t wait for him during the afternoon run, but all that’s OK by us.)

We left Smolensk down the big hill, across the river and rr tracks, and up another big hill (first use of granny gears this trip), at the top of which was a Yak-42 (think Boeing 727) in front of an apartment building in front of the “financially struggling” Smolensk Aircraft Factory (a really big complex).

The first maybe 70 miles of today were on hills – big rolling hills that kind of grind you down after a few hours. Here’s a picture I took as the sun came up and the road got mostly dry.

We continued to ride by rural villages – electricity but no running water. We also rode by 3, let’s call them “truck stops” – collections of a few tiny shops selling things to passers by. Here’s one of each, the truck stop with the Lada and Alexandr in the foreground.

There were, of course, occasional monuments – three of them today. The first came out blurry, but following are the second one (1941 indicates a WWII happening) and the one on the turn off to V’as’ma. Alexandr was waiting for me at the V’as’ma one and said that it was for the battles between the soviets and Russians. I questioned him on this, but am still unclear

It is 10:55pm. I’m locked in my room. The key is in the keyhole so nobody can look in or unlock my door. (Alexandr advised this procedure.) I’m going to try to go to sleep in one of these concave beds. If you’re reading this, I survived.

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