Driving through Russia represented a big unknown on our trip around the world. It’s always interesting, now that we have completed that section, to think how perceptions of a country change completely once you have been there.
Before we left we had a whole bunch of negative stereotypes to choose from our on-line research into driving the Trans-Siberian. Not to say, the stories and words of ‘advice’ handed out from friends and others. Not even to mention the truck drivers on the Latvian-Russia border trying to scare us about the road ahead.
Shall we list them:
1. The road conditions.
(a) You need a 6X6 preferably with VTOL abilities.
(b)Your car will be shaken to pieces.
(c) Your vehicle has to be small enough to put in the luggage compartment of the Trans-Siberian Railway because that’s where you gonna end up anyway.
Russia is a vast country which is very under-populated in its eastern parts so, yes, some roads are really just a collection of pot holes the size of bomb craters. Even when they are surfaced they can be a broken mess that is just dangerous for you and your vehicle. However, Russia is not a failed, bankrupt state that can’t afford to build roads – it just has thousands and thousands of miles of them to sort out. Top of the Ministry of Transport’s list is the main corridor running from west to east, linking the inhabited areas and stitching the country together.
We can report that the main Trans-Siberian Highway is open for business and could be negotiated using anything down to a Robin Reliant with low-ride suspension. In 2010, most of the highway was completed: The infamous Amur section was opened and we saw major improvements in progress along pretty much the whole route from the Latvian border to the Sea of Japan.
The problems remain only when you want to go off this road – as long as it isn’t flooded and a sea of mud, Russian roads will only slow you down – they are not impassable – and, if you think this is bad, wait till you get to Mongolia. Of course, that now becomes the problem – how much time can you afford in such a vast country with a three-month visa?
2. The driving conditions.
(a) Moscow has the worse traffic of any major city 24/7.
(b) Most drivers are drunk.
(c) Hey, have you seen that youtube video, you know the CCTV film of that junction where this guy comes through a red light and causes massive carnage? Or there’s another…. etc
We saw no accidents at all on our 12 000 km in Russia. We didn’t even see any crushed and crumpled vehicles by the side of the road – the results of recent carnage that can be seen in other places in Asia. Perhaps, they clean up super quickly or maybe Russians drive safely knowing that they’re on a long journey and they want to be sure of arriving in one piece..
Certainly, the driving habits are pretty restrained by East European standards. I didn’t see people taking risks overtaking or driving too fast through urban areas. Maybe Moscow itself is different – I don’t know; we avoided the city altogether by using the ring road late at night – this only took us a few hours on our race to the Far East.
3. The Mafia.
(a) The hills are full of bandits.
(b) You have to stop overnight in a secure car park with armed guard.
(c) Don’t stop for or talk to strangers.
In our preparation phase, this was one of the big worries; our bus was full of windows and doors that wouldn’t lock and we spent a lot of time rebuilding with our security in mind.
I don’t know why we bothered. We had a drunk in Ulan Ude bang on the trucks in the middle of the night, threatening to slash some tyres. We had the local kids besiege us for a couple of days parked near a friend’s flat in Blagoveshensk. But nothing else happened and we always felt safe whether in the middle of massive cities, squatting broken buildings or in the middle of the wilderness, either close to the road or hidden from view in the taiga.
4. The police.
(a) Make loads of colour, laminated copies of important documents so you can avoid having to hand over the originals.
(b) Minimum traffic violation fine = $10. You will make an average of 5 violations per day. If you actually made any of them then these numbers would increase.
(c) Every three days you have to register yourself with the authorities. This process will take one day and cost minimum $10. If you don’t have proof of these registrations when you exit Russia there will cause be more fines and penalties.
No Russian cop asked to see anything more than the International Drivers’ Licence that you can get for £5. It was always returned and the colour laminated copies remain untouched in their folder. The biggest scam that we could detect was having a speed camera in road works to catch anyone going over the very low limit signed and posted, the trick being that the limits would stay up even though the road was finished.
Only once, on a grey day in the very heart of Russia, some police pulled us over because we had failed to signal at a junction when we were sure that we hadn’t. It seemed that they were doing the same thing to many of the locals and we all waited in turn inside the cops’ car to find out their judgement. With us, though, not speaking any Russian, the little dictionaries we offered them proved too much trouble and we were set on our way. This happened again on an occasion when I turned left where I shouldn’t have (and knew it) – the only other times we were stopped was a couple of times out of curiosity at one of the many traffic police posts outside every city and on the state borders.
5. The people.
(a) In Siberia some of the bandits are cannibals.
(b) Everyone will offer shot after shot of vodka.
(c) Russians aren’t particularly amazed about people visiting their country.
Some of the babushkas manning the village shops were pretty fierce – everyone else was friendly and helpful. Most people kept their distance and respected our privacy before quickly opening up if we attempted to make any communication.
We didn’t get a shot of vodka until half way through our journey, Russians don’t seem to carry a bottle around where ever they go. Maybe this was a reflection of generally being on the road and the well-observed laws on drink-driving – maybe we didn’t experience too much of what goes on behind closed doors in a Russian’s home. We found that beer was more the drink of choice with younger people both out and about on the streets and in the bars.
Once past the Urals and heading to the Far East, the amount of foreign vehicles using the main highway will not render you as an unusual sight. The chances are, however, if you turn into one of the countless villages along the way, you will be the only foreigner who ever stopped there and your achievements in reaching the back of beyond will be admired and respected.
6. The environment.
(a) It is freezing.
(b) Watch out for forest fires.
(c) The only anti-mosquito cream that works is suspected to be radioactive.
The summer of 2010 was pretty hot, smashing records and abetting vast forest fires around Moscow. It didn’t cool down in Vladivostok until October and even then a couple of jumpers and a coat would see you through most of the winter.
Forest fires, of course, are always a risk and, while the mosquitos remain an annoyance that will definitely happen, they weren’t any worse than mosquitos generally are and never made a place unbearable in the way they can do in other areas around the world.
In many, many ways Russia is the best country to visit under your own steam with a camper van or, at least, a jeep and a tent.
- You can pretty much park anywhere you like. Cities are certainly no problem and are rarely so crowded that you can’t find a random piece of land stop for a couple of days. Traveling across the whole country, it is easy to get off the beaten track as there’s only one and very little traffic anywhere outside of the towns. We camped by lakes, rivers, in fields of mushrooms close by herds of wild horses, lotus ponds and hill tops. We also stopped in disused buildings, inner-city car parks, housing estates and building sites with never any problem beyond finding water or the possibility of grabbing someone’s Wi-fi.
- The price of diesel easily offsets the cost of train tickets and hotel rooms.
- Buying fresh produce by the roadside is always much more fun than eating in restaurants.
The only real problem with Russia is its size and the fact you may not have enough time to cover it all – the problem being that you can’t stay longer.