The Rally Part 4: Russia. Or: We love you, you crazy, crazy bastards

 

Russia is, let’s be clear, kinda awesome. And kinda terrifying, too.

We travelled through around 4.500 km of it, over roads which were fantastic, and roads which were primarily roadworks, and roads which, quite cimply, induced much terror. And we met the most terrifying thing of all: the Siberian Mosquito of Doom.

But first things first: the border crossing into Russia, from Latvia. We have chosen this one on purpose, as we had heard that, it being a Schengen Zone border, and quite far north, it should be quiet and civilised.

We were wrong.

We arrived at the border queue at about 9:30am on the morning of July 21st (a Saturday), hoping to be clear of it in about four hours.  Some eight and a half, we were finally into Russia (and were mightily surprised to be in at all).

After hours of waiting for the 40-odd cars in front of us to clear, we got through the Latvian part of the border relatively easily. We had our paperwork looked at, our car cursorily looked into, and thought ‘huzzah!. Things became unglued, though, when we got to the Russian side.

The customs woman there took a look at our car’s registration documents, and noticing that it was incomplete, said she couldn’t let us through. At all.

This was because the document was incomplete – I’d sent in the little blue section telling the UK’s DVLA that we were exporting it. Something I’d been told to do, and which seemed eminently sensible, as we were, in fact, exporting it.

Customs woman, however, was of the impression that this now meant that the car had been deregistered, and couldn’t be allowed into Russia. Despite the fact that we were only driving it through Russia, en route to Mongolia. Something we explained to her. Multiple times.

[It’s worth noting at this juncture that when I said ‘she said something’, it was said in high-speed Russian, with the young passenger of another car very sweetly translating.]

Anyhoo, this ‘we can’t let the car in’ then turned to ‘we’ll let the car in, but you must pay a fine for incomplete documenhts. Well, we thought, if it’s a couple of hundred Euros, so be it. Imagine our surprise, however, when she wrote down that the ‘fine’* was to be 4295 Euros. Far more than the car was worth, and money that we weren’t even sure we had, or would be able to get.

At this point, Dane and I began to discuss simply turning around, going back to Europe and taking the long, lovely way back to the UK. Popping in our our wonderful new friends as we went :)

But then, another development. The ‘fine’ turned into a ‘deposit’, which we would be able to reclaim at the border into Mongolia. Yeah right.

And then, a further one. Someone who, by the size of his hat brim, was very clearly a superior came out with a sheaf of photocopied paper and spent half an hour pointing bits of it out to her and saying ‘nyet’ over and over again.

Finally, she let us go. No fine, deposit, nada. We reckon she was told to let us in.

Two and a half hours of drama (and my repeated apologies to the poor chaps stuck behind us in the queue), and we were in Russia.To be honest, I was’t sure at that point that we actually wouldn’t have been happier turning around, as this didn’t bode well for our Russian experience.

Anyhoo, the day being almost over, we drove for a bit, pulled over and made camp in a small copse of pine trees (ouch mini pine cones), and had fun as I freaked out at every noise, worrying it was someone about to do Something Bad to us.

The next day it was on to Moscow, into which we decided against all sense to drive. Moscow traffic is something else – fast, aggressive and incredibly chaotic. We survived it, however, avoiding even a prang (although I almost throttled Dane for having us drive in circles a few times), before finding an incredible canteen and sitting down with trays laden with awesome food. Far more than we could finish, our stomachs having contracted a great deal at this point. The place is called Grably, with stunning insides and a giant selection of tasty. I tried to get photos, but wasn’t really allowed to by the stern Russian security guard, whose type seem to grace every sort of establishment, including petrol stations.

From there, we realised that we might not have the time to get out of the city to camp before dark, so then it was all about finding somewhere to sleep. In fact, we had come into Moscow, gone to check out two likely hostels, and thought ‘no’. One looked like a flophouse, despite Lonely Planet’s singing its praises, and the other one would have had us sleeping in separate dorm rooms. So we went to said lovely canteen hoping it would be dinner before heading out of the city.

But we found something, and in the area, and all thanks to Google! Called 3 penguins, it’s tucked away just off the main street, and is small, clean and very civilised. It’s also about 1000NZD a night for a private room with shared bathroom. Moscow’s accommodation prices have to been experienced to be believed (highest in the world, or some such). Trying to find it, Dane had flagged down a Moscow citizen who, despite speaking no English, had called the hostel and then actually taken Dane right to the doorstep :)

Some sleep and a hot shower later, we decamped Moscow. Gorgeous place, but one a person would want to spend a few weeks in to get the feel of, we reckoned. And preferably not driving (or using taxis).

And so began our trip across Russia.

Click on this image to watch our Russia timelapse vid...

I won’t bore you with all the details, but some moments and thoughts:

  • Russia is gorgeous. Very like Canada, Dane says. Full of forests and lakes and grassy plains, which were all in riotous flower.
  • The Kazan province is especially wonderful. The roads are brilliant, the scenery gobsmacking (including giant lakes and huge skies), and the petrol stations have wi-fi and all the amenities. We can’t recommend it highly enough. Indeed, even the Lesser Known Wood Prostitues (and truck strop prostitues, of course) were better looking :)
  • Russians are, for the most part, very pleasant. Learn to say your Ps and Qs in Russian, of course, and while they may not be as smiley as us Westerners, they are nonetheless still very pleasant people.
  • On that note: Russians are lunatic drivers, but at least give the impression they (mostly) known what they’re doing. However, everyone seems to do pretty much as they please, which can lead to being overtaken on both sides simultaneously, with another car or two going for it on the hard and soft shoulders, and with a truck heading towards one in the wrong lane as it overtakes another truck. This is only scary initially, we promise :P
  • In fact, Russians seem to live by the maxin: ‘fuck you, we do what we want’. Which is oddly charming :) They’re like the Scots of the continent, really. We saw many things, including, as we came into Russia, a truckdriver standing in the middle of the road, having a chat, wearing nothing but a speedo, his tan, and a beer belly. Good man.
  • Don’t fear the GAI. The ‘old’ name for the traffic cops, these weren’t nearly the problem we had expected. Having been warned that we would be pulled over and extorted by bored traffic cops at every town, and turn, this never actually materialised. Which meant we ended the Rally with rather more cheap whiskey than we had expected. In point of fact, we were actively ignored by the GAI, or simply looked at in puzzlement. Only once were we pulled over, 200km from the Mongolian border, and the chap let us move on the moment he realised we didn’t speak any Russian. We reckon he was just bored and curious about what we were doing, rather than out for something.
  • Cigarettes, even Malboros, are CHEAP. Vodka is even cheaper. And instead of 2 minute noodles, one can buy 2 minute mashed potatoes, which are far healthier, and far tastier :P
  • Avoid Omsk, the old capital of Siberia.
  • Realise that every time you want to go anywhere near a city, it will cost you half a day. Realise that any time you want to go AROUND a city, you should start looking for the detour from about 70km outside of the city itself – there are ring roads, but they can begin a bit far out :P
  • Don’t be afraid of truckstop canteens and food. It can be quite pleasant, if basic. Think meat, potatoes and salt. And awesome little fried bread things with cheese or onion or somesuch in them.
  • Petrol in Russia is cheap. Very.
  • Ah, yes. Petrol stations get increasingly basic as one heads further east, and particularly the bathroom facilities. Get into the habit of using the wilderness where possible…
  • Free camping is totally OK. Even on someone’s lovely farmland. Just don’t park ON their crops, and a bit out of sight of roads and habitation is a good idea. Of course, if someone tells you to move, do so. Or offer them a bit of money, a drink and a smoke.
  • Always offer people a smoke.
  • Avoid Omsk. In case that wasn’t clear further up  (it really was the picture-perfect post-industrial post-Soviet hellhole).
  • The Altai region is stunning. And the river running through it is really nicely set up for camping. It’s clearly a popular summer spot for the burgeoning middle class of Novosibirsk (the new capital of Siberia) :)
  • LEARN THE CYRILLIC ALPHABET. Either beforehand, as we meant to, or through the time-tested means of road signs, which is what we ended up doing.
  • Siberian mosquitoes are demons. Use very good insect repellant, and understand they’ll get to any bit of skin (even if it’s clothed) that hasn’t been covered in it. Also realise that they’re voracious, fast, and travel in packs. The biting flies aren’t great, either :P

 

One very interesting experience was the dust cloud which stretched from a little before Omsk all the way to Novosibirsk. At first we thought it was simply Omsk’s pollution reaching out across the countryside (and on Omsk’s outskirts, that smog had our lips and eyes stinging), but it couldn’t have been, as it stretched across the 600-odd kms between the cities. It tasted like dust, and at one point was so thick we only had about 100m of visibility (scary considering the trucks, cars and their driving). It also reduced the sky to a sort of beige, and the sun to a small, baleful pink dot one could look directly at. We wondered whether the world had ended, someone had blown up Kazakhstan’s deserts, and we simply hadn’t heard…

Upon ending our journey, we found out that the ‘dust’ was in fact drifting smoke from giant Siberian forest fires, which burned for weeks.

Overall, though, Russia was gorgeous. And we can’t recommend highly enough the Kazan and Gorno-Altaysk (i.e. Altai) regions for their beauty. Will look forward to returning to Russia at some point, maybe to continue our journey west to Kamchatka! We’d certainly love to see Lake Baikal :)

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* Which definitely wasn’t a bribe. There were very clear signs on the booths saying please not to leave money in passports, and that bribes would be looked upon very dimly.

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