Leaving westernised Finland, driving into Russia is very different. But it is still nothing like our experiences in Africa. Once we arrived on the Russian border we followed the cars, only to be sent back to the truck section by a very unfriendly Russian Custom agent. The reason was that we were too high. Once we arrived at the truck section we must have met her sister as she also was very unfriendly, basically waving us away and told us to speak Russian as we were now in Russia. We had learned in Africa to never leave the line and just block the flow; in our case today the line of people. It did not take long before the boss came out and he even spoke a little English. He was friendly, helpful and looked after us very well. Two and half hours later, we drove into Russia. Let`s hope he did not make any mistakes, which may bite us when we go to leave Russia. We didn`t time the arrival in St Petersburg very well as we arrived during peak hour. It took over two hours to do the 11km to our GPS location; a car park next to a hotel where we camped for a few nights. Our first day we had a bit of a scare when we were photographing the World`s lowest Metro Station (150 meters underground). Photography is strictly forbidden! Our next Russian Experience was a surprise when Olga Arnautova, a colleague of our neighbours in Australia, Peter and Elizabeth Boenig, emailed us and welcomed us to St Petersburg and wanted to show us her town. I have heard people say we do not like cities, well neither do we. However, St Petersburg is different with its lavish architecture, extraordinary history and rich cultural traditions. Although not our thing, we were told that St Petersburg has world-beating opera and ballet productions. A city of palaces and museums, broad avenues and winding canals, St. Petersburg’s short history has endowed the city with a wealth of architectural and artistic treasures.
Alongside world-famous attractions such as the Hermitage, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Mariinsky Theatre, sights that reveal both the pomp and extravagance of St. Petersburg’s political and Imperial past. I have to say we have seen a lot of the world, but St Petersburg is like no other city we have visited. it was time for us to leave and start moving north again.
ST PETERSBERG to KEM
We received some bad news. We were unable to find a guide who was willing to guide us across the frozen White Sea from Letniy Lavilok because the ice is starting to show cracks. (Spring is upon us in the Arctic). Clary was very firm and would not allow me to try without a guide! Hence, we are travelling a different (faster) route towards the Kola Peninsula. Once we navigated ourselves out of St Petersburg, we followed Lake Ladogo, which is the largest lake in Europe. We made a stop in Olonec (the goose capital of Europe), before continuing for our stop in Petrozavodsk. Our main reason was a visit to the island of Kizhi which is a World Heritage site full of ancient wooden houses. Villages original to the island also exist, and some houses are still inhabited by locals. Bad news! The whole lake is frozen, and no boats are going to the island; and we were not allowed to camp in the city nor at the hotel (Karelia Hotel) that used to allow people to camp inside the car park. It was disappointing as we were really looking forward to the remarkable examples of wooden architecture on Kizhi Island. Kizhi Island also has a church (the oldest wooden church in Russia). No nails were used in the construction of the wooden church. Instead, pieces of wood have been notched together to form even the most intricate structures. No visit to the island and after we set up camp we were told to move on out of town? What a day! Anyway, we found a little bush camp 100km north of Petrozavodsk close to the local pub after a very long day driving. Believe me, Russians can drink.
We travelled further north. It turned out to be a long day with us clocking up 470km to be exact, to the town of Kem, a picturesque setting where the Kem River empties into the Kemskaya Bay. The main reason to stop here is the trip to the Solovetsky Islands. We tried to get to the islands via the frozen ocean from the other side (Letniy Lavilok) but were unable to find any-one to guide us and the truck over the frozen ocean as the warm weather really had affected the condition of the ice. Hence, we drove to Kem hoping to be able to catch a boat or maybe a snowmobile to reach the Solovetsky Islands; one of the cruellest Soviet prison camps. Solovetsky has for centuries been the scene of amazing extremes of human heroism, endurance, suffering and cruelty. But after we drove through the very poor village of Kem, it became clear that no-one was going to get us to the islands either by boat or snow mobile. Another problem we encountered was the fact that secondary roads are not cleared in Russia and sometimes the roads just stop in the last village, creating the need to back track and try the next road. On the bright side, it did show us parts of Russia that others may have not seen.
With all this bad luck we reach the Kola Peninsula a lot earlier than expected and this time we were not disappointed. The Kola Peninsula is the northernmost territory of European Russia, situated north of the 66th Parallel. The territory extends 550 kilometres from west to east, and 400 kilometres from north to south. The Peninsula is bordered by the White Sea in the southeast and by the Barents Sea in the north and northeast. Karelia lies to the south, Finland to the west, and Norway to the northwest. This is an Off-Road paradise and we will spend most of the rest of this week and next week here. This week we re-entered the Arctic again by crossing the Polar Circle and this week we continue to spend time on the Kola Peninsula. After a lot of bad luck with unexpected warm weather (mind you still below zero) and being unable to visit the islands of Kizhi and Solovetskiy, we are now enjoying ourselves in an Off-Road paradise named the Kola Peninsula. But like the visits to Kizhi and Solovetskiy we should have done a little more research because North West Russia in winter is not an area that is focused on tourism. Roads just do not exist in winter except the main M18 to Murmansk and a few roads in and out of some of the villages, but then it just stops. When it snows in Northern Russia it really snows and within a few hours, traffic stops and if you are out bush you are in strife. The bitterly cold wind and wind chill factor makes staying out in the bush when broken down, not a real option. Because we travel on our own (we hate those convoys) it is important to make sure you are in control. Once It does snow, four inches an hour is not uncommon. Despite all this, we did some careful off roading and it is a real experience. This is a vast area and not as sophisticated as in Northern Scandinavia. In Russia, in the small villages, they still use a system of providing drinking water; small water houses (kalonky) with running water on the corners of the streets in most small villages, which means fresh water is never an issue. The Kola Peninsula is covered by tundra, forest-tundra and taiga (dense forest) and is home to a wide variety of flora. The Kola Peninsula is also rich in fauna. Wildlife includes reindeer and elk, brown bear, wolf, fox, Arctic fox, ermine, and wolverine; The `King-Fish` (pink salmon) leaps through river rapids on its journey from sea to its spawning ground. The Kola Peninsula boasts more than 130,000 lakes and we visited the remote coast-line on the southern end of the Peninsula. Our Garmin World-map is of no use in this area as the roads are not visible. We did have the BSM maps but as stated before, most roads are not cleared and are covered by two meters of snow. We noticed the crossings when we did see the odd give-way sign just showing above the snowline. I would love to visit this area again at the end of April, when there is still enough snow on the ground making driving a challenge. This would also be the time you like to drive in convoy. The whole Kola Peninsula is waiting to be explored and I am sure it will be a challenge. Many mountain ranges rise out of the western and central parts of the Kola Peninsula. The largest of these is the Khibiny Tundra, with a maximum elevation of 1200m (Mt. Judychvumchorr). The Lovozero Tundra is made up of rounded mountains with plateau summits, the highest point being Mt. Angvundaschorr at 1127m. Both the Khibiny and the Lovozero Tundra are rich in exotic minerals. Jewel-like lakes, transparent springs, majestic waterfalls, fantastic rock outcrops and stunning mountain vistas can be found in these regions and through the centre, finishing up in Murmansk. We encountered some cold weather entering the Kola Peninsula and even after driving 300km in high range with high revs, the motor stayed cold and ice covered the whole engine, radiator and areas around headlights, winch, springs and shock
absorbers. Even with the warm cabin, ice still formed on all the inside windows making frequent stops necessary. Unbelievable! In
Monchegorsk, we were told we should find a Dutch man named Frank and his Russian wife who operate an off-road adventure company known as Kola Travel, www.kolatravel.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. They were very helpful but gave us the same message i.e. due to the heavy snowfall, the roads are mostly impassable until at least the middle of May, so we had to alter our trip a little. They said snow mobiles even had trouble getting through. Frank said that if groups came up and gave enough notice, he will organize off-road trips. Because we only gave him eight hours’ notice of our arrival, this was not possible.
Frank also advised us to try the first campsite to open in Murmansk. It was part of the Hotel Ogni Murmansk and we were even able to plug in to some much-needed power. But the most surprising part was that it included an indoor swimming pool, which after seven days was an ideal way to have a good wash. The staff were very friendly but like everywhere else in Russia, no one speaks English. But when we arrived at the hotel the Manager came out to welcome us to Murmansk. His name is Dimitri. Not only did he speak a little English (ex Russian Navy and worked with a shipping company) he tried to find an English-speaking person to show us Murmansk. However, when this became impossible, he showed us around Murmansk himself. Amongst many other sights, he was able to show us the atom generated ice-breaker, Lenin. Dimitri told us that his family lived all around the world, but his home is Russia, and this is where he wanted to live. He told us that the Old Soviet time was good with a lot of stability, but now with Perestroika, things are different with 15% unemployment. But he acknowledges that his daughter had a better future ahead of her. One million people call the Kola Peninsula home. Nearly 400,000 live just North of the Peninsula in Murmansk. The 220km back to the Norwegian Border, was littered by World War 2 memorials, and abandoned tanks. Closer to the border we passed some large nickel mines that were pumping out lots of black smoke. We filled up with an extra 50 litres of diesel just before the border for 1450 rouble. (See saving below). The towns and army bases around here were even more depressing than some of the towns we saw travelling North from Saint Petersburg to the Kola Peninsula.
MURMUNSK to NORWAY BORDER
The border crossing was straight forward; Russia took one hour including a detailed truck search. Entering Europe was a 10-minute affair including a quick search of the truck. Once we passed the border we gained three hours. But it also meant that we lost three hours daylight! As we gained all this time it became a very long day and tonight we bush camped on the Varanger Peninsula near Vardo in Northern Norway, overlooking the Arctic Ocean and once again looking at Russia across the water
Today we reached 70 degrees north for the first time. It was very windy and cold through the night, but we woke up to blue sky.
Fuel Prices: What a difference 1km makes! In Murmansk, we purchased 500 litres of diesel for 14,750 Roubles
This is $ 460.00 AUD. (0.92 AUD per litre diesel). In Scandinavia we would have paid $1,222.50 AUD saving a whopping 762.50! or a saving of $1.52 per litre. Unbelievable
This is $ 345.00 Euro`s (Euro 0.69 cents per litre diesel) In Scandinavia we would have paid E 916.90 Saving a whopping 571.90! or E 1.14 per litre saving! Unbelievable
Can you believe Norway is the third largest producer of crude oil? Maybe something for the department of fair trading, or the Ombudsman?
This is the first time we have travelled in Russia and we really enjoyed it. Hence, we look forward to our second visit in June/July en route to the Stan Countries and Mongolia. I think Russia has a lot of negative publicity and I think a lot of this is unfounded or assumptions made by people who have not been to Russia.
BORDER UKRAINE TO MOSCOW
The European Championships really pushed our itinerary and with the Visa for Russia and Mongolia in place we were now behind schedule. We wave goodbye to our new-found friends and next was the border-crossing into Russia. We were expecting and preparing for a long wait. After 3 hours we checked out of Ukraine and into Russia. A small sign showed Moscow (800km). It turned out to be a long day as we tried to get as close as possible to Moscow. We were warned not to tackle the ring-road but with no detailed Moscow Garmin map, it appeared to be the easiest way to get to Sokolniki Park. After the good roads of the Ukraine (done up for Euro 2012) we entered Russia where we initially decided to take some side and rural roads. It did not take long before we looked forward to being back on the Motorway again. This was the first 70km not much better (Looked like the German Autobahn in 1950) but as we came closer to Moscow the road was perfect. In fact, the horror stories we had heard about Moscow are not true; the roads are quite good. The volume of traffic is horrendous and whenever possible, Muscovites like to drive extremely fast, overtake left/right on the hard shoulder and the soft shoulder. In fact, there’s an accident or breakdown roughly every couple of hundred meters. After 3 hours stop start we arrived at our destination and Clary had enough of the Kamikaze pilots as nobody gives an inch. Traffic keeps flying on either right or left-hand side including the dirt next to the hard shoulder. And when the lane markings stop completely it`s a total free-for-all. BUT I have to say that with no rules I felt quite comfortable as it appears most are prepared for some-one doing something stupid. At 3 pm on Tuesday we arrived in Sokolniki Campsite in Sokolniki Park. This is in the middle of a huge public park.
Moscow is a hive of traffic, people, tourists, wealth, McDonalds (even in front of the Kremlin) and expensive top model luxury cars. We used the subway to get around. We strolled around Red Square, walked past Lenin`s tomb, went inside Saint Basil`s Cathedral and visited the very trendy GUM Store. We decided not to book a tour of The Kremlin, but did the walking ourselves as we did not feel like going in a group of 30 or more tourists following the lady with the flag. We tried to find the hop on hop off bus, but we were advised this no longer existed. We spent 3 days around the Kremlin/Red Square area and visited the Bolshoi Theatre. If St. Petersburg is Russia’s imperial crown, Moscow is its heart. It is a city in which one comes face to face with all that is finest in the world. More than anywhere else in the country, it is in Moscow where the Soviet past collides with the capitalist future. Lenin’s Mausoleum remains intact, but today it faces the newly chic GUM (pronounced goom), which is becoming ever more akin to Macy’s or Harrods`s. The Red Square was being made ready for a huge concert. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the city today is not Moscow’s much-publicized embrace of Western culture, but its self-assured revival of its own traditions. Ancient cathedrals are being restored and opened for religious services, innovative theatres are reclaiming leadership in the arts, and traditional markets are coming back to life. Moscow is the capital and mother city of the ancient state of Russia. Word of warning, Russians (Like East Germans) do not smile? Not sure if this is a problem from the Communist regime, that people are depressed, or they may not be able to cope with the growth and changes happening. It does not mean that they are not friendly, they are friendly, but it takes time to get to know them.
English is a problem, but the younger generation does speak English. The older generation does not and basically ignore you
MOSCOW to LAKE BAIKAL
Once we left Moscow it took 4.5 hours to do 45 km! It took 1.5 hours to get to the ring road 9km and 3.5 to do the 36 km out of town. Roads are good, but the traffic is horrendous. We are now following the Trans-Siberian Highway that spans the width of Russia from the Baltic Sea of the Atlantic Ocean to the Japan Sea of the Pacific Ocean. It stretches over 11,000 kilometres. Arguable the world longest National road however disputes come from Australia (Australia’s Highway 1) but this is an around Australia road, and Canada (the Trans-Canada Highway). We passed Novgorod; many say it is Russia`s 3rd city. It has a Kremlin right on the Volga River. We entered the Volga Region and Republic of Tartarstan. In 1990 they tried to become independent from Russia but with 43% of the population Russian, this did not happen. Years of political warfare started. Kazan (capital of Tartarsan) also has a Kremlin, but as the traffic was heavy/horrendous, we decided to bypass the city centre. We crossed the Volga River which is Europe`s longest river at 3700km with its headwaters west of Moscow, it flows into the Caspian Sea. The whole day we drove past huge farms and were wondering if this was part of the old Soviet State- run farms. Also, many disused buildings that look like army barracks which could have been hard labour camps. Just north of Perm is the notorious hard labour camp PERM 36. Perm 36 was a hard labour camp for political prisoners (dissidents) many artist, intellectuals and scientists spent many years in the cold damp prison which only closed its doors in 1988. Windowless cells and barbed wire is a reminder of the hardship of only a few years ago. Again, we asked ourselves the question, “Did anyone learn anything from Auschwitz – Dachau?” The rest of the week we kept driving towards Lake Baikal. In Omsk we visited the Fuso dealer as we had some fuel problems. We were welcomed with coffee and tea, but the fuel issues could not be found. We were however warned to only look for the best Fuel stations IE LUK-Poche- and a few more that I can`t spell. We were told that the Fuso engine is very sensitive to dirty fuel. (We do not believe this is the problem and we believe it is the pre-fuel filter) Photos taken, handshakes and a picture from a Kamaz Paris Dakar truck and we left. The Following towns were Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk where we needed to do urgent shopping as supplies where low. We found the supermarket but there was no internet. After 1.5 hrs in peak hour traffic we had had enough, and just as we were moving towards the road out of the centre, our computer registered wireless. (Computer is mounted on the dashboard). However, we were in lane 3 out of 5 in front of a traffic light. Who cares – this is Russia. Turned on the hazard lights, started to down load the emails and sent the emails which had to go out. No one looked curious as we were parked in the middle lane with hazard lights flashing, probably thinking just another breakdown. A few minutes later, emails down loaded, emails sent and off we went. After we left Krasnoyarsk the steppe disappeared and the taiga, the great forest that extends over most of Russia, started. The vast Siberian taiga is the largest remaining forest in the world. Now it was only 1700 kilometres to Irkutsk. Having had mainly pretty good roads (Russian Standards) bumpy but manageable, the last bit before Irkutsk had a fair bit of rough patches. Initially we decided to try and reach Irkutsk on Friday night, but we got stuck at a nice Shaslik BBQ stall 50km before Irkutsk and decided to stay the night there. Beer came in 1 litre cans and the shasliks tasted superb. Complete dinner and drinks 10 AUD or 8 Euro. We must be honest and state that this was the least interesting part of our World Safari so far and we are really looking forward to R&R around Lake Baikal. People and the villages were interesting along the way, but it was not outstanding.
We had to make a choice either to visit Lake Baikal or travel through the Altai Mountains to Western Mongolia. We decided to follow the Trans-Siberian highway to Lake Baikal. The highway roughly follows Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway. At night we heard the trains come past. It is the longest continuous rail line on earth; an epic journey of almost six thousand miles (or about ten thousand kilometres), over one third of the globe. On this visit, we did not spend much time in any of the large cities except for shopping. But once we have the opportunity we will do a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway Line starting in Beijing travelling to Europe via Mongolia, stopping off in the larger cities to do sightseeing. But this will be a winter trip when Russia is at its best as we have seen in Northern Russia earlier this year. February would be our choice month stopping off in the major towns as they are jam packed with history.
Look at a map of Russia and you see that most of the country, roughly 75 percent, is Siberia. It is a cold place, and we felt the cold as we travelled in the northern part this winter. It consists of bears, taiga, and shuttered gulags: wilderness, the last big empty. But this image is incomplete. It ignores Siberia’s populated large cities.
Novosibirsk and Omsk are both cities with a population of over a million each. Then there are the other cities of Krasnoyarsk 900,000 Irkutsk 600,000 Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Tomsk are 500,000 plus cities. Roads are getting better in this region, but the harsh winter conditions do not help. Siberia plays an important role in the Russian economy because of its tremendous mineral resources. The main industry is mining for diamonds, gold and silver. It is also a major producer of coal, natural gas, timber, fish and other resources. During the week we past Izhevsk home of the Kalashnikov, next was Perm and a little further north, the town of Kutchino. In 1972 the government converted Perm- 36 into the primary place of imprisonment for people charged with political crimes. The GULAG, that showed many similarities with former Nazi-camps, differed from most other camps in Russia because of its extremely severe regime. Only the most ‘dangerous’ otherwise-minded were kept in Perm-36: opponents of the communist government, authors and distributors of anti-communist literature, the USSR’s most prominent dissidents, anti-national organization`s leaders, advocates for human rights and other kinds of “enemies of the State”. It became the site of the harshest imaginable Soviet prison (GULAG) camp during the long period of communist rule: Perm-36 was one of the last ones in the Soviet Union to keep political prisoners as it only closed in December 1987. Nowadays, the camp is the only one of its kind that remaining in Russia. Other camps were carefully destroyed with the fall of the communist regime. The site and the facilities of the camp are now occupied by the Museum of the History of Political Repression “Perm-36”, which functions as a vivid reminder of communist terror. All unique buildings at the camp, living huts, cells, the punishment cell, the inner-camp prison and the remains of the fences, were either preserved or have been restored. Both Clary and I have by now had enough at looking at hard labour camps. Hence, we decided not to visit. Most people have a vision of Siberia being an extremely cold place where people who disagreed with the current political system were incarcerated for long periods of time, some of them never reappearing.
LAKE BAIKAL to MONGOLIA BORDER
After a long trip from Moscow to Irkutsk we are enjoying Lake Baikal, also called The Pearl of Siberia. We were very lucky to secure a parking spot at a closed down hotel right at the pier in the middle of the town of Listvyanka. We are taking it easy again and are enjoying the local Shaslik, Omul smoked fish and other niceties. We have booked a boat trip and will be enjoying Lake Baikal from the water. Lake Baikal is easily the largest lake in Eurasia, and it is the deepest lake in the world (1,620 meters). Lake Baikal is so large that all the rivers on earth combined would take an entire year to fill it. Its volume accounts for 20% of the world`s fresh water supplies. It supplies 90% of Russia with water. The lake is 636km long and up to 80 kilometres wide. It has a shoreline of 2000km and a surface area of 31500sq km. The Lake is fed by 336 rivers and only one outgoing river, the Angara River that flows towards Irkutsk. When we arrived over the weekend it was warm and sunny 29 degrees but in the shade the wind was quite cold. The beaches were jam-packed with Russians, but no-one was swimming! All were drinking Vodka and having Shaslik BBQ`s or dried fish called omul. It was when we put our feet in the water that we knew why no one was swimming – it was freezing! In fact, the water temp was 4 degrees and after about 30 seconds your feet start to hurt! The lake had only been Ice free for 5 weeks and after 6 months of very cold weather and a 3-meter layer of ice, the water never warms up to above 8 degrees Celsius. The first frost and snowfall happen early in September and lasts until the end of May. The town of Listvyanka is an old-style Siberian village, situated at the source of the Angara River, the only outlet of Baikal. Today it is in danger of being overdeveloped, with a tourist-oriented fish and souvenirs market, picnic areas and a plethora of cafes.
However, it is a quite interesting mix of old Siberian houses, new hotels and Backpacker Hostels. It was the first town where we could find English speaking staff, where they had a Tourist Information centre and where it looked like they were generally interested in International tourists. Credit should go to Listvyanka for even having a tourist info centre; the rest of Russia seems to prefer that tourists don’t exist. On Sunday it was one long queue of Lexus, Toyota land cruisers and other very smart cars driving into town. As I call them the “New-Russians” they are building summer residences, hotels and restaurants everywhere. Obviously, they must like the western style of life. Listvyanka is the first place we have seen western tourists since leaving Moscow. We met people from Germany, Canada, and Holland. Again, we had some great meals. The menus were even in English which made ordering much easier. Lake Baikal’s is situated in a region of surpassing beauty, its forested shores surrounded by the snow-clad peaks of the Barguzin Mountains. Our day on the lake started sunny but cold and it became colder as the day progressed. We learned a lot about Lake Baikal`s history and the BAM Towns. In 1991 just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the BAM towns never developed as planned. Severobaikalsk has managed to trudge on but I’m sure if you asked anyone over 30 years of age, they long for the halcyon days of Leonid Brezhnev. But we will not go there. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, travel to remote areas has become easier than ever before. In the last five years alone, the north-eastern part of the country has gained international renown for its excellent fishing, hunting, and expedition travel. And if it wasn`t for us driving alone, we would have turned off long before Irkutsk to do the BAM track. We spent a few days around Lake Baikal before backtracking to Irkutsk. Enroute to Ulan Ude, we found another nice camp spot on the South Side of Lake Baikal. The view of the lake from the road, which was often high up in the mountains should be spectacular. Unfortunately for us the view was poor due to clouds and haze from bush fires. Our last major town in Russia to visit was Ulan Ude where we did the last shopping, filled up with fuel and continued to the Mongolian Border. We didn`t know that Ulan Ude is the centre of the Buddhist Buryat culture. We visited nearby Ivolginsk Datsan, a restored Tibetan Buddhist monastery which now serves as the centre of Buddhism in Russia. Heating the towns and cities in Siberia is very interesting. Hot water is piped from a central furnace or power station to each home. There are massive insulated pipes running through town. Some are a rusty metal colour whilst others are painted in bright colours. We have been drinking the local tap water wherever we go. In many towns there is a communal tap or water pump where water can be obtained. At other times we have filled up with spring water gushing out from pipes straight from the mountain streams.
Our journey through Russia comes to an end. In Russia all the signs are in their script, making transportation and navigation at times a challenge. Poverty is evident in the quality of dress, but infrastructure is developing. As in all countries, economic diversity of the people and its land is evident when travelling around. The cities are city-like, with shops and bustling crowds going about their hectic lives. The rural countryside areas are more of interest as you can see more genuine culture and the way of life all around. Russians drink a lot of beer and vodka. Frequently you’ll see someone drinking on the streets or while driving and the odd drunk in the cities. Communication was challenging, but a smile keeps everyone happy even to the tough and unapproachable looking types. The people we interacted with were friendly and helpful. Traditional horse-drawn sleighs remain a common mode of transport in many parts of Siberia and the Far East, and in northern towns, dog sled races provide the backdrop for great festivities. During our travel this winter in the far North of Russia, we met a family who shared with us what life was all about for the average Russian living away from the city. The family was one of the lucky ones, although poorly paid just 500 roubles a month ($15) for herding reindeer belonging to the State, they also had their own herd. The additional income was shared with others in the village who were not as fortunate. The school in the village catered to all grades taught by local teachers. There was neither hospital nor a doctor in the village creating huge problems, specifically with the birth of new babies. The young son was one of the lucky ones surviving a very difficult childbirth. We read that food in Russia is bland consisting of mostly cabbage and potato. What a myth this is. Normally we would do our own cooking, but we have found it is much easier and convenient to eat at the road side cafes. We typically stopped at road side cafes that have lots of cars and trucks parked outside which is a good indication that the food must be good. The best Shasliks on Earth! Whilst the cafes are very plain they are kept very clean. The same cannot be said for the outside toilets. These are mostly to be avoided at all cost – far better to go behind a tree along the road side. The population of Russia is 143 million of which 40 million live in Siberia.
Next was Mongolia.
We arrived at 6pm and this is the time that the border closes, hence we had to park our truck in front of the gate and stayed the night. Mixing with vodka drinking Mongolians and Russians, do I have to say more? We were warned by others on the web to prepare for an 8-hour saga getting all the papers right to leave Russia and then enter Mongolia. During the night, 3 Mongolians jumped the cue in front of us.
I assume they weren`t happy that we parked in the car-lane as we were supposed to be in the truck lane. Two hours to clear Russian Customs and one hour to clear Mongolian officials was all it took for us to enter Mongolia. That day we only drove 80km to visit one of the four bow and arrow factories in North Mongolia. This factory only produces 40 sets a year as it takes around 3 months to manufacture one set
Last year we stated that in Africa you get your license with 3 packets of butter.
In Russia I am sure you get your license with 3 bottles of Vodka.
Despite all the bad reports we have seen on the Web, we believe this is not fair. The roads are not as good, (potholed) but the driving is different (fast) compared to Western Europe. Cars are a symbol of prestige and is number one on everyone`s wish list in Russia. Twenty years ago, hardly anyone had a car. Except from St Petersburg and Moscow, tourism is not developed but this is what makes it interesting. Who wants to arrive with a busload of people in a small town being told by the tour guide this is an authentic village when the next bus load arrives an hour later? Camping is non- existent, but free camping is allowed everywhere more limited in in St Petersburg and Moscow. Cost of living is very cheap and the time you spend with a local enjoying a vodka/beer for next to nothing is priceless
Overland in Russia with your own vehicle.
Petrol and diesel is readily available in Russia and there are generally 4 types on sale: 95 (“devyanosto pyaty” – that’s what you use for most foreign cars – unleaded), 92 (“devyanosto vtoroi”), 80 or 76 (for old Russian cars) all around 28 Roubles per litre, and diesel fuel AT 29 Roubles per litre, so it is less than half the price of that in Europe. We have been told of problems with fuel in Russia, but when filling up at the better-known service stations is not a worry. This is not Africa! The stations we used were recommended to us while in Russia. TNK-Lukoil-Nestea (around St Petersburg) Stanoil (north west Russia
I have seen a lot of negativity about this on the web and again this is not warranted. The worst part so far was the border crossing. (But nothing like some African crossings! We struck two very unfriendly custom people and due to our truck being too high we were not allowed to cross at the vehicle point but were required to go via the truck crossing. This time, a very helpful person who spoke some English, helped us through. The poor bugger had to walk back to the vehicle crossing to get our paperwork as the two-unfriendly customs people were wrong and should have let us pass! Total time was 3 hours. Since the border crossing it was all positive but you should be aware that there are no special facilities along the way. We camped either in the bush or when we required facilities – truck stops are perfect. The most we paid was E 2.50 and this included security. It did include toilets and showers. (Do not Expect Western Standards). If you require electricity, some hotels allow you to park in the carpark and run an electrical cord. (If you travel in winter and do short days you may need this). With regards safety, we did not have any issues. In St Petersburg we stayed in the middle of town in a secured Hotel carpark with power/toilet and shower 5-minute walk from the Metro. Further north, we used the bush or truck stops. We camped mainly in the bush or near truck stops but we did stay in three camp areas:
- St Petersburg at Hotel Elizar, which is located 5 minutes’ walk from the Metro which takes just 15 minutes to the City centre. Electricity, toilet and shower cost 1000 roubles per night.
- Hotel Ogni Murmansk in Murmansk, electricity, perfect view over Murmansk, 600 roubles per night. But this includes: one swim in the indoor swimming pool, one-day snowboarding and one-day skiing in the company-owned Snow-park. With outside temperature hovering around the minus 20 degrees the pool was a real treat.
- Sokolniki Park, Sokolniki Campsite in centre of Moscow, walking distance to the Metro and FREE WIFI close by
- The Russian Traffic Police
The traffic police agency in Russia is called GIBBD (government Inspection of Road Safety) and is notorious for its flexibility. Nowadays criminals have found other sources of income and therefore there are lots of police along the way, which in turn creates another problem of frequent police checks. There will be no problems though if your documents are OK. While the traffic rules in Russia are generally the same as in Europe, we are told you can always reach an agreement with a traffic cop on the spot in a case when your infringement is not serious. The fine for speeding is 10 Euro, cross a red light and you’ll get your driving license taken and will have to go through the court to get it back. Around 500 roubles will do the deal with the traffic cop, so they say. Cameras are installed on the major motorways and city avenues and the cops usually like to hide beyond trees to stop your car and show you what their radar detected. You shouldn’t worry if you get stopped even if you think you did nothing wrong. The checks are regular and if your documents are OK, the inspector will take one minute and wish you a nice journey. We were only stopped four times in around 2500 kilometres. Compare this with Africa. (I think in Mauritania a Mozambique it was around 10 times every 100km.
- Car Insurance in Russia
We purchased a Green Card covering the whole of Europe including Russia. Via Allessie Insurance in Holland. You should have third-party insurance valid for the whole territory of Russia, to be able to enter with your car.