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A107 and other roads, June-July 1999, story by Andrey Sebrant

June - July, 1999  

      Summer is the season of travel. It is the time when sunsets above a broken line of city horizon call you loudly and clearly every evening (unless you spend the time socializing at some place lacking windows - a restaurant in a basement for example, a very popular location for a restaurant in Moscow). My weekday routine includes simultaneous answering e-mail, discussion with several clients and partners on ICQ, checking Web-sites - all that while talking on the phone. A headset and tiled windows on a large monitor present a nice modern office environment, but somehow by Friday night I start dreaming about something not necessarily low-tech, but definitely less wired and talkative. Something like a bicycle.

   Once upon a time when I was working in a research lab, every summer we left Moscow for a good wilderness trip. A few stories of those old times you may find on my pages - a report on adventures in Ural mountains, another one featuring northern Russian land of Karelia.

   But it is 1999 today, and the life has changed; I work for a private company, and my position offers less freedom for summer adventures. Time to adapt.

The right station to start the ride
   If I were in New Hampshire now, perhaps the best thing to do would be driving up north on I-93, then taking a soothing course of Kancamagus Highway that ends up perfectly in North Conway with all its cozy shops full of the right gear for solo adventurers. But I am in Moscow and have neither a car nor a driving license. So under circumstances the right thing to do is to ride a bicycle to a train station (alone or with my daughter), take a local train to a small stop in the woods a few dozen miles from Moscow - and then ride the bike for a few hours choosing smaller roads. One of my favorites is A107.

On the train with my daughter Marina and our bikes

And, as always in my stories here, you can zoom in on any picture. Just click an image, and a larger and better quality photo will open. Many of the photos are worth looking at in postcard size.

   It is a strange one - if you know its history and fate. Otherwise it looks almost normal, a gray narrow concrete and asphalt strip gently winding through the virgin forests and fragrant meadows, between narrow marshes with cattails swinging in the wind, by occasional villages. Some houses in them are already abandoned, owners died or gave up and moved to a nearby town. Others look neat and homey. I do not know why this scenery reminds me of the road somewhere in Tennessee that I took a year and a half ago, in January that was looking like Russian April, between broken barns and lonely farms...

This house makes you dream of a coutry life In the abandoned yard where now you do not need an invitaion to be Abandoned house near the road

Tennessee road
Tennessee barn
A107 is in my rearview mirror...
   Oh well, we are not crossing US now on I-40, I'm not behind the wheel of an old Vagoneer, empty A107 is running away in the rearview mirror of the bike. Let us get back to the history of A107.

   The cold war successfully stimulated a lot of construction work in both US and USSR. Some Americans believe that the entire highway system they are so proud of is a child of that monstrous competition of military ambitions of the two nations. In the USSR, strategic transportation backbone was a railway system, not highways. But in some locations, around Moscow in particular, we were building highways too. A107 (then it was not known under that name and even not present on any public Soviet maps) became one of the two rings around Moscow connecting the sites of huge and powerful Moscow defense system, now mostly defunct.

   Riding along A107, an observant person may note a few slightly unusual details. First, there are surprisingly few villages and towns on the way. The area so close to Moscow is well urbanized and densely populated, and small roads are supposed to connect places rather than hide from them in the woods - which are also surprisingly clean, empty and lacking trails.

   Then you realize that all curves the road makes are too wide and slow for such a narrow road. Local small highways make sharp turns pretty often, A107, never. Moreover, now and then you pass junctions that are simply too good for such a road. They are wide and obviously designed with a very long vehicles in mind. Old signs meaning "Do not enter! Wrong way!" (Russian motorists call this sign "the brick") decorate every such road, hanging above the paths made of impressive thick concrete.

Try to imagine the length of a vehicle these turns were designed for
Grass knows the art of patient waiting. Now it enjoys the victory
That once was a garage for those long missile launchers - protected by several feet of concrete...
Once it was a top secret gadget...
   Let us go under the sign - to hell with the rules, it does not look like there is anyone to enforce them - and into the woods. The path runs for a mile or two, it obviously leads to no village or dachas. Nor does it look heavily used recently. Wide turns show fresh grass in the cracks, and no sign of country life of any sort can be seen in the woods around. And you realize that the long vehicles that once used to crawl on these roads were mobile missile launchers of all types.

Yes, those launchers of the 1960s were really long and heavy beasts! If you are lucky, after one of the turns you would see what once was a garage for five of them... A huge hill, with a few feet of concrete between the grass roots on the top and the air-tight metal case. Now almost all the doors are missing, and most of the equipment vanished. But something strange and weird still seems to be lurking in the damp and cold darkness stinking of oil and fire...

The building was constructed in 1957, the peak of Cold War
Barbed fences around our past
But such large findings are rare - most of the them are still used by the Army. 40+ years is not a long time for a seriously constructed building - and the photo on the right shows the proud mark of the construction time below a red Army star at one of the abandoned barracks. Smaller surprises are more frequent, by the road shoulder sometimes you see strange artifacts, remnants of anti-aircraft missile launching tables, for example - just look at the bottom photo on the left.

   Huge networks of deserted forest roads where once missile launchers were cruising following a deadly random pattern protecting them from a possible offense do definitely look weird. And at some point you all of a sudden come to the rusted but still carefully locked gate of a checkpoint or to a multi-level barbed wire fence. The land still belongs to the military, something still happens behind the fence - or maybe it is all an illusion and fear strong from the past.

Car owners, beware!
   Anyway, these roads are not shown even on modern Russian maps, and they do not lead to any new suburban cottages. Only car thieves use them - so that it is a usual sight there, auto bodies stripped of everything that can be sold at a street market or to a small repair shop where they ask no silly questions. A funny epilogue for a long military novel, nobody but the criminals use these expensive results of Army road construction team activities...

Fragrant meadows of former restricted areas By a pond View from a river bank

   Okay, that was an educational detour, but we may return to A107 and ride on. Riding a bike is better than driving a car (if your only goal is to relax, not to get somewhere in time) - you enjoy the scenery deeper. It does not fly by meaninglessly, it rolls out lazily and penetrates your memory to remain there until the next time. In a year, or when? Well, we're riding on, past the meadows and the lakes, small ponds and slow rivers -and actually there is no order telling us to stay on A107 all the time. It is a great route, but there are others also not bad, and curiosity suggests us to explore at least some of other highways that occasionally cross our way.

Once it was a pier Beach at the Bear Lake A diver and a toad pool by the road

Marina and the creek
Flush flood after a heavy shower
   On a hot day, all roads eventually lead to the water. And this June broke many temperature records! It was horribly hot, an air-conditioned office was a blessing, but at some point it was time to leave and enter the oven of the overheated streets. Small surprise that on a weekend hordes of Muscovites were moving to every available lake, pond, and river. Every patch of sand became a famous and popular beach, every deep enough puddle by a road became a place for scuba diving, and the kids (our kid, too) were ready to play in any small creek or a stream forever.

   Drought and hot weather are great friends with flush floods - desert dwellers know that perfectly. For Muscovites it was a surprise - but we learned the lesson quickly. A heavy shower falling on too dry a soil could make a lake nearby advance to a road. The road that runs literally through the lake - a place for real fun rides.

   But the road - any road - takes its grim toll of drivers' lives even when it is as toll-free as any Russian highway. There is a tradition in Russia to mark the spot of a fatal accident with a monument of some sort. Sometimes, just a small plaque on a killer tree... Sometimes, more elaborate construction like the one in the photo.

   There are many, too many of these humble memorials even along a small road, lots of them line up mayor highways near Moscow. Drink and drive is a local tradition and it shows.

Last look at the forest When they try to add some civilization, it always provokes vandalism Moscow belt road is empty on Saturday afternoon Shower is a blessing in the overheated city

Well, the ride is almost over. Time to get off the bike and for the last time this week frolic in the forest. In a relatively wild one along A107 or in more civilized closer to Moscow - where the signs of civilization do not last long anyway thanks to young gangs.

It is time to ride back home, to cross the only freeway near Moscow, its belt road that also serves as a city border. Jammed with cars and trucks on a weekday, it is now empty, Muscovites relaxing elsewhere. Or maybe we are tired enough to take a train again and again read the newspapers...

...And when we are almost at home, the shower hits the streets, the warm water starts washing the sidewalks and all of a sudden a hail adds a special flavor to this free street fun...

Okay, we are home at last, and it is the time to check e-mail before the mailbox grows too heavy. The weekend is over, time to start waiting for the next one.

Andrey -

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