Hello again there, remember us? We’ve been dragging our feet a little with this post haven’t we? Sorry about that, well by now I’m sure you’ve figured out that we made it back to lands-less-foreign – and unfortunately recounting our tales has had to sit on the back burner until now – until old friends have been met, families have been greeted, pint glasses have been emptied, and jobs have been resumed. But we’re here now – typing away for your pleasure, and so that we don’t forget what a mammoth road trip we’ve been on… ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; the biggest country of them all:
Day 404 – Monday, June 2nd 2014
We both had a bizarre feeling on entering Russia – Yes it was a country that we wanted to see and explore, but also, it’s flipping massive, and it stood between us and our ultimate goal; mainland Europe. We were torn between making a mad dash for it and making the most of our time here.
There’ll be time for those decisions though, for the moment there was something more formidable to get through – the Russian entrance border.
Shortly after the Mongolia mountain outpost of a border the dirt track ended abruptly, and Ivor’s tyres rolled smoothly onto the Russian asphalt which lead up to the first police check on the way into the country.
Famed for strict, complicated, incomprehensible, and corrupt behaviour we were delighted to find that the bad old soviet days are largely behind them – we were greeted with a professional attitude, and even a smile from the uniformed officer directing us to park in the correct bay. The customs inspection was blissfully lapse, since they were content just to take a quick look around – but it was not so for the poor Mongolian guy next to us who was having absolutely everything stripped out of his car.
Before long we were heading west on smooth paved roads, reaching the giddy speeds of 80kph (50mph) in places, and weaving our way through the valleys of the Altai Mountains.
There were plenty of chances to pull off the road, and before the sun got too heavy we found a spot near a river to camp for the night.
Day 405 – Tuesday, June 3rd 2014
Knowing that we had some spanner work ahead of us, it was difficult to convince ourselves to leave the comfort of the bed, don the ‘work clothes’, and get ready to give Ivor yet another beating.
We drove up to some firm ground near the road and treated the brute to some new filters, swapped the aggressive treaded rear tyres back to road going versions, and inflated all of the tyres back up to road going pressures. There had also been some transmission whine getting increasingly obvious – which we isolated to the prop shaft support bearing. We were carrying a spare, but it wasn’t quite bad enough for us to bother dealing with yet – we’d wait until we found a Russian with a sufficiently large hammer to change it for us.
A couple in a butch German camper coming in the opposite direction stopped to say “hi”, and brought us news from the road (or lack of) ahead. Apparently there had been a LOT of rain, resulting in missing bridges and sections of roads. It had been a few days since the worst of it, and they had to take a couple of days’ worth of diversion, but if we were lucky it would be passable again by the time we got there.
We had no trouble as we headed north east out of the mountains, though the water levels all around were shockingly high, and the rivers were flowing at an unnaturally high rate.
We pulled into our planned night stop of Gorno-Altaysk with plenty of light left in the day. One of the games that holders of Russian tourist visas have to play is getting registered at hotels – fortunately this isn’t very strictly enforced, and as long as you make the effort at least once on a pass through the country or if you stop for a while in one place then you should be alright.
We found a hotel, but they couldn’t register us unfortunately, though they could give us directions to one that would*. With our empty bellies reminding us that it was way past dinner time we decided to leave the registration for the morning, to find a restaurant, and to sleep in the parking lot of the hotel we were at (they confirmed this was okay, and that we wouldn’t have to pay anything*). After an extortionately expensive, but very pleasant, dinner in a nearby restaurant we settled down to bed.
* this comes across in the text as if we just swaggered in, asked the receptionist, and came away with an answer. Hidden behind each interaction there were games of charades, scribbled maps, friends that spoke at least a few words of English were phoned, and even after all this what you’re reading here is just our best guess at intention of the responses. Certainly in this area of Russia at least, English is far from the language of choice.
Day 406 – Wednesday, June 4th 2014
Our morning would be filled with the excitement of registering at a hotel, trying to avoid the rain, and picking up some groceries. Because we are kind and caring folk with at least some comprehension of what goes into a good story, we’ll spare you the gritty details and move onto the next bit.
In fact, in terms of spinning a good yarn quite large portions of today could do with a good glossing over; the truth be told, the glamour of life on the road gets lost when the main features of the day include 600km of flat Russian roads, a lot of rain, and a 30 minute break while some hammer wielding Russians change a bearing for you. We always knew that portions of Russia would pan out like this; it’s just too damn big to tackle it any other way.
A truck stop would be home for the night, and we took dinner in the café trying to get a taste of ‘what real Russians eat’. We made a bit of an error here since the asking price for the unique combo of burger patties and pasta was well over the top, and it made for a rather uninspiring plate.
Doesn’t sound like we’re enjoying Russia very much does it? Fret not, this was just glum day; it gets better for sure.
Day 407 – Thursday, June 5th 2014
We had a cooked breakfast of toast, eggs, and beans (of the genuine Heinz variety), before V got the spanners out once more and set to work on one of the joints in the exhaust since the engine note was sounding a little different, and this would be the easiest fix by far if it turned out to be the problem.
A very friendly security guard came over to say hi and to practice his English – which was by far the best we’d come across in the country so far.
We put in some westward miles before stopping in at the town of Tatarsk in search of Roubles and a local SIM card. An ATM was easy to find, but Kim took on the unenviable task of finding the SIM in a small supermarket. The poor shop worker obviously did not deal with English speakers all that often, and definitely not ones that wanted a purchase as complicated as a temporary connection to a mobile phone network that needed international calling and a reasonable amount of data connection. With Russian speakers, forms in Russian, and no knowledge of the process Kim eventually returned to Ivor almost an hour later, fairly frazzled but with those magical signal bars present on the phone.
We put in as many miles as we could stand, and settled down for the night at a truck stop.
Day 408 – Friday, June 6th 2014
West would be the theme of our day. Still with 1200km or so to cover before a scheduled tourist stop in Yekaterinburg we did very little other than pilot Ivor in that general direction.
One of the few stops we made was at a gas station – to allow the pump attendant to liberally spray diesel over one of our tanks. Exactly why he did this is not clear, given that he was a professional, and the role assigned to him essentially involves making the pump start, and then stopping it again. Our expectations for his abilities were clearly too high.
We made another slight error in choosing a parking spot for the night too; we were unaware that this particular parking area was the location chosen for a party that would go on until 5am. Ohpsy, not such a good night’s sleep.
Day 409 – Saturday, June 7th 2014
Today would be our last in Siberia, we were getting closer to our version of civilisation – it was official. A fact confirmed by the service station we filled up at – aside from the currency and the language used we could have been anywhere in mainland Europe. We had cappuccinos, a panini, and a pastry – just because we could.
We arrived in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest City, at around 4:30 – enough time to take advantage of an incredibly accommodating hotel that let us shower for free, and who explained that we could park on the street in front of them without having to pay.
The centre of the city was much more appealing than we’d imagined. It’s true that most of the accommodation on the way into town had been the typical soviet tower blocks left over from the 70’s (which for some reason they are still reproducing everywhere), but further in the feeling was more akin to London’s south bank on a summers day; the banks of the river Lset’ being lined with modern architecture and beautiful gardens. People were out enjoying the sunshine – cycling, roller blading, or just taking the pooch out for a stroll.
Some pub grub set us back far more than it would have done back home – which came as a shock after the way we’d been living in the rest of Asia. We took to a bar just up the road that the internet had tipped us off about – there was a fun vibe, and it wasn’t long before dancing was getting underway. The music was almost all western, cheesy, and old – but the dancing was some of the most enthusiastic that we’ve ever seen – the phrase “dance like nobody is watching” is very effectively applied here.
Day 410 – Sunday, June 8th 2014
Our surprise night out combined with the steady onset of exhaustion from the constant travelling had set us back – any plans to leave town today were put on hold once we’d dragged ourselves out of Ivor in time for a Mc-Breakfast at 11:30.
We did manage to take ourselves for a walk around the town to take in some of the sights though, and were again thoroughly impressed by the city which we hadn’t even heard of until recently.
We decided to spend the day planning some of our next moves, and managed to find a coffee shop with good enough internet that V could be treated with the chance to watch the Scottish round of the downhill mountain bike word cup live.
Day 411 – Monday, June 9th 2014
Day one of the plan we drew up yesterday was mountain biking. The clouds had other ideas, and sent down sufficient rain that even if the plan wasn’t entirely unfeasible, it was at least thoroughly unappealing. Instead, we decided to go back to Europe.
There is a small and completely unremarkable concrete pillar tucked away in a slightly overgrown layby that marks the official border between the two mighty land masses. We took a couple of snaps anyway, and got back on our way, our first time back in Europe for over a year.
Our next stop was the Kurgan ice caves, where part of the network remains below 0°C permanently, and the moisture in the air has gradually created impressive crystalline structures within. There were a string of ‘airlocks’ to stop ambient heat seeping in and wrecking the structures, and we’d opted for the money-saving Russian tour, instead of the marked up English version – and we just hoped for the best that the guide wasn’t saying anything that was actually important.
Our next major target was the City of Kazan, so we set off in that direction. An attempt to get off road into a forest to camp ended in a wheel spinning Ivor digging holes in a clay slope, so we backed down and opted for a café parking lot instead.
Day 412 – Tuesday, June 10th 2014
Shortly after we’d hit the road at 8:20 we passed a double time zone shift – so before we knew it the GPS was showing that in our new time zone it was 6:30 – sheesh, no wonder we were tired.
We needed a water fill up, and a bemused parking attendant came to our aid, pointing out a tap and fetching some hosepipe for us to use. Developed though they were, used to caravans they were not.
Some colossal thunderstorms kept the afternoon drive interesting, but with a couple of extra hours in our pocket, even the regular road works didn’t stop us getting to Kazan before the shops shut. We made the most of it by seeking out a bike shop and trying to find some trails for the following day. One person who spoke a little English was summoned to try to help us out, Ildar was from Kyrgyzstan, and really helpful, though not actually a cyclist. He posted on the local cycling clubs forum asking for an English speaker that could show us around, and before long we received a phone call from Boulat, who would meet us the following morning. We camped in the parking near where the trails would start from – there were some grills, and a few tents set up for people to drink in. It would have been rude not to stop in for one, so we fought off sleepiness and people watched as the Russians once again got into their enthusiastic dance-stomping, flinging limbs about with reckless abandon.
Day 413 – Wednesday, June 11th 2014
We met with Boulat at 9:30, a quiet but friendly member of the local cycling club, obviously a keen cross-country cyclist he lead the way through some sandy woods to a lake-come-beach. We toured around for the rest of the morning blindly following our guide. The terrain was largely wooded, but we saw a few more lakes and a followed a pretty river for a while. By early afternoon we were quite a distance from our starting point and had already covered 40km – having conditioned our legs by sitting in a truck for the last 6 months, and having eaten only some cereal for breakfast we were really beginning to feel the burn. Boulat steered us back towards Ivor, and by the time we made it back we had 55km under our belts – it was definitely time for some food.
We ate with Boulat at one of the grills near our parking, and embarrassingly couldn’t pay for him since the ATMs have an annoying habit of dishing out 5000 Rouble notes, that most normal people can’t change. We said our goodbyes and thanks to our guide, both touched by the fact that he had given his time at a moment’s notice to show these clueless strangers his local trails.
Just as we were getting ready to head into town the routine Ivor checks showed up a complete lack of coolant. A very bad sign. By topping it up we spotted that a metal pipe, designed to warm the sump oil, had been worn through by a cable that had been rubbing on it – a consequence of 1000 rough Mongolian kilometres, and countless bumpy roads before that.
V took the offending pipe out, and we asked ( / mimed) to the owner of the grill that we’d just eaten at to see if he knew anyone that could weld, and might be able to help us. He was sat at a table with some regular customers, and very quickly phones were removed from pockets and they tried to help us out. It was a public holiday the next day, so time was of the essence.
It wasn’t too long before a small van arrived with a welder in the back – but the pipe was aluminium, and the guy couldn’t fix it. Instead, one of our new friends took the pipe to an auto shop, and came back with some rubber hose, instant gasket, and some hose clamps that we could use to cover up the worn away section.
The fix worked just fine, and they wouldn’t take any money for the parts – the grill owner had even brought us over food and tea while we waited, which he also insisted was on the house. When you’re really in a tight spot, it’s amazing what people will do to help you out, even when you can’t speak a word to each other.
With the troubles behind us, but a paranoid eye on the temperature gauge just in case, we drove into town and found a hostel that we could park outside, and use the showers for a small fee.
Yet more friendly Russians; we spent the evening in the company of the other hostel guests, having a tea party since one of them had a posh Japanese tea set with them and was quite the connoisseur, and could almost be described as a brewing artist with a performance of the routine every time a different pot was infused. We played a kind of multi-lingual charades between the languages that we had between us as a group and stayed up far later than a tea party would normally go on.
Day 414 – Thursday, June 12th 2014
A slow start before a tour round Kazan; the friendly hostel folk had let us use their internet and pay a little to do a couple of loads of laundry. After our chores we could get to the serious business of lunch (at an Irish pub, of course), and then some tourist time in the town centre. We toured the famous Kremlin, and avoided the drizzle the best we could.
Day 415 – Friday, June 13th 2014
Next stop on the rushing Russia tour was the picturesque town of Suzdal, the most Easterly point of the so-called ‘golden ring’ of churches and ancient towns within reach of Moscow, but the drive would take all day – we finally arrived at 8:30, without much time to do anything other than find a camping spot and knock together a pasta dinner.
Day 416 – Saturday, June 14th 2014
We made a walking tour of the exquisitely preserved old town, with a grand Kremlin and more churches than we could sensibly count (though our mathematical skills are perhaps lacking after so long away from work, so the total may not actually be that high), the area is justifiably famous.
Busloads of Moscovians had the same idea, with it being a long weekend and all, but the town’s big enough that by the time everyone has drifted away from the immediate centre it doesn’t feel too crowded.
Early afternoon we left Suzdal and set off towards the capital. With only 210km to cover we were sure we’d be settled into Moscow with plenty of time to see what the night life had to offer. Sections of highway maintenance and the sheer weight of traffic conspired against us so that we eventually only rolled into town just gone midnight.
It’s not often we get a chance at a Saturday night out in Moscow, so we ignored the ‘I’m tired, let’s go to bed’ aspect of our common sense and went off in search of a bar. Many venues in Moscow have an elitist attitude to their entry policy – If you’re not dressed right, or just not attractive enough, revellers are regularly turned away. Obviously our dressiest gear was safely locked away in a storage box in Toulouse, and to be honest – the smartest crowd are not often the one laughing the most – as such we searched out a dive with a relaxed door policy and sure enough, a fun atmosphere within. The music was bad and the drinks were expensive, but the dancing was crazy and the people were friendly – ‘eye of the tiger’ is still a contemporary dance floor filler in Moscow centre. The sun was fully up by the time we returned to Ivor to sleep at 6.
Day 417 – Sunday, June 15th 2014
We weren’t too disappointed to see the rain falling outside Ivor’s windows – we didn’t need much of an excuse to stay in bed a little longer, and that was just the ticket. We still dragged ourselves out for an afternoon of sightseeing, dodging thunderstorms with tactical coffee breaks.
The Moscow Kremlin is world renowned, and photos of the multi-coloured domes of St. Basil’s cathedral lining the red square must be in the collection of every single tourist that has ever set foot in the Russian capital. The moody clouds were not showing off the iconic centre to it’s full potential, but it was impressive to us all the same.
That evening we dined in a Georgian resto, which although still very tasty lacked some of the charm of genuine the Georgian cuisine that we’d been enjoying all that time ago on our outbound journey. By the time we were done it was already passed our bedtime, and we would have to be up early to avoid getting a parking ticket – since it was only free at the weekends.
Day 418 – Monday, June 16th 2014
6am came round all too soon, but to avoid the parking militia we were up, coffee’d, and driving by then.
Our course was set for Latvia, and we’d either get there this day or the next. As it turned out, stopping in to send off some postcards and get Ivor one last oil change cost us enough time that we’d be spending one more night in Russia, particularly since we didn’t know the actual opening hours for the border.
Sebezh is a small lakeside town 80km from the Latvian border, and well pulled in with enough time to explore the place in search of an open restaurant, determined to get in one more Russian meal while we had the chance. We found a friendly place, no-one spoke English but the phrase book on Kim’s phone provided us with ‘What do you recommend?’, which was sufficient to land us with some goulash themed dishes which were rich, tasty, and cheap.
Day 419 – Tuesday, June 17th 2014
On the road to the border we stopped to fill up our tanks with the last chance for cheap diesel, and to use up our remaining roubles. It turned out that our research into fuel prices was slightly superfluous – the cascade of gas stations leading up to the frontier with Latvia told us all we really needed to know.
The grumpy official at the border post was far less excited to see us than the customs sniffer dog; which paid a worrying amount of attention to the engine / gearbox area of Ivor’s underbody. The hound was either taking an uncanny interest in mechanics, or (more likely) had found fascination in the lurking aroma of Mongolian camel turd, since further investigation by the customs officer fortunately showed nothing exciting.
Russia had truly surprised us, through we didn’t have a lot of preconceptions about the country, the friendliness of it’s citizens, the stunning scenery, the architecture, and the upbeat feeling of the city centres caught us off guard. Hopefully we would be able to return before too long.
Another chapter closed in the trip, and before we knew it we’d be seeing the circle of stars on EU flags showing that we were almost back. Strange that, not all that long ago the remaining journey would have been the longest drive of our lives, yet now it seemed beyond manageable – close even.
Surely nothing could stop us now? What could we possibly do to spice up the next installment of this otherwise thrilling blog when we just trawl the motorways of northern Europe? And how the flip will we find ourselves in a Polish truck garage sawing sections off of a vital engine component from a Renault van to make it fit our Iveco?
Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion to DownTheRoadWeGo….