Kemerovo

We’re pretty much in the dead centre of Russia, the heart of Siberia. The middle of nowhere. Miles upon miles of road, empty landscapes and enormous skies bounded by the furthest horizon seen away from an ocean.

And then we happen upon a city – a large city by the looks of it; an industrial, urban centre full of factories and shops, new bridges and flyovers entwined with the giant, rusting water and gas pipes common to Soviet architecture. It looks we’re in East Europe but if we drove directly south from this pont we’d end up not far from Calcutta.

As night descends we stop in a meadow behind some trees by the road and prepare the evening meal. It is about this time, when the roads are quiet, that we hear the trains on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The tracks are close by as they have been since crossing the Ural Mountains and every night it is the same – the haunting sound of very long goods trains rolling slowly past or possibly the taunting passenger trains laughing at us trying to drive across this mammoth country…

Novosibirsk

The fifth largest city in Russia – the designated capital of Siberia – we’d had big hopes for this city but the weather turns bad as we arrive and doesn’t lift until we’re back on the road heading east. In the grey and gloom, Radka likens it to Ostrava in Czech Republic, 4000km ago.

I get stopped by the traffic cops for the first time and another illusion we had about Russia evaporates: the police aren’t after bribes and don’t see us as foreign cash machines. The best way to deal with them is to smile alot, say how excellent Russia is and then brandish an English-Russian dictionary for them to use to communicate the penalty that must be paid. They will instantly shy away from this book, with its tiny printing and many pages, and, after you have translated the words for ‘sorry’, ‘confused’, ‘honest mistake guvnor’, the cops will pretend that some more important call has come through and send you on your way.

Ishim

Here we are on the detour round Kazakhstan, a lovely section of road that we’d been concerned about before we left Europe.

In Soviet times, when it was all one country, the main road continued in a straight line from Chelyabinsk to Omsk and most maps still show this – the Trans-Siberian Highway clips Kazakhstan. But we couldn’t go through Kazakhstan – we didn’t have suitable visas – and we couldn’t get much information about the alternative route. Times are, indeed, changing in this part of the world, however. Finally, after 18 years of there being an international border, the Russians were building a brand new road in order to avoid it.

On paper it looks like a 300km detour – sizeable by our normal standards – but truck drivers in the towns before advised us that, if we didn’t use it, we’d spend hours at the two border crossings and the unrefined Kazakh roads would slow us down to a crawl – so this part of the route actually becomes a short cut.

Urals

We’re out of the Ural Mountains which were neither almost impassable nor full of bandits – both things we’d been told by daft truckers back west. Now we’re trying to decide if that means we are now in Asia, and thus Siberia, since, traditionally, Europe stops at the Urals.

Overnight we’d stopped near the road by a river in quite a beautiful spot once the anti-mosquito cream had been applied. To get there was a bit of an angle from the road but it didn’t look too bad and I argued it was a good chance to test the vehicles’ ability to get in and out of tight spots. Getting down was O.K. – just a little scraping on the low points of both trucks but getting back on the road in the morning… Well, we should have reversed out, keeping the same successful orientation of the vehicles because the Iveco nearly tipped over while Jigsaw nearly pulled the back lights off – something I had wanted to do anyway (repositioning them higher up) but in a more controlled fashion.

Kazan

Our first break in a week of driving. We wanted to stop in a city with more of an ‘Asian’ feel and Kazan came up with busy markets and glistening mosques – Tartarstan being the northern limits of Islamic culture.

We managed to drive all the way into the centre and park up in the shadow of its Kremlin that overlooks the Volga River – and here we found a German truck whose residents came over to say hello. We were wondering if they would join our convoy to the other side of the world but, no; this was the eastern-most point of their summer travels and they have to return home. It was strange to think that Kazan was only our first stop and we’d rushed past everything they were telling us about in European Russia.

Rzhev

Our first of many village shops.

Evening is coming and Moscow is only a couple of hours away but we plan to ignore the great metropolis on our mad rush eastwards – the visa simply does not afford us time to visit many cities on this whole 12000 km journey and, hey, we can see Moscow any time – it’s probably on the budget airline network after all. The places we’re heading for most definitely are not.

The only question is, then, which of the three ring roads to use getting around the capital. We’re going to cross at night, to avoid the traffic and its rush hours – and there’s a great sense of anticipation as we stock up on energy drinks and fill up with diesel. We are still incredulous that we’re in Russia and everything’s going to plan, even if everytime we open up the maps and see how far we have to go we get the shakes.

Latvian-Russian Border

Here we are at the edge of the European Union – we are feeling like we’re at the edge of our destiny. A bt of a dramatic sentiment, maybe, but one that comes after so much planning and preparation, hard work and dreaming. Once we cross this border there’ll be no turning back and we’re going to have to depend on the veracity of the notion that the world is round to bring us home again.

It’s a nine hour queue at the border – nine hours to wonder if we’ve got all the correct document; to worry if the Russian Customs will pull us apart and charge us for it; to sweat in the silent heat of a forty degree summer’s day and, possibly worse of all, nine hours for our fellow queuees to plant stories of woe about the many roads ahead of us.

We reach the head of the line and the barriers for the Latvian half of the border – the cop there gives us some nonsense about our trucks being too big for the private vehicle queue but, of course, we’re not quite right for the commercial vehicle queue either. While we thought, ‘well, the trouble has started already’, this turns out to be the only problem and we’re through the Russian side in as much time as we can decipher the bits of paper we have to fill out.

As evening darkens we’re onto the road heading to Moscow, the red sky properly in our mirrors at last.

Polish Ruts

Earthcircuit mapreading

Earthcircuit mapreadingWhat are the factors involved with ruts on an asphalt road? Weight of traffic, sure – what about the quality of tarmac or weather, use of studded tyres…? These ones on the high roads of Poland have got to be the worse I have ever seen. Jigsaw is sliding about so much that we’re down to 30mph and still the beads of sweat are dripping of my brow, hands clamped to the wheel, concentrating like I’m pulling a bus round the Himalayas – I’m in Poland! If it’s like this all the way then our schedule will have to be revised.

Iveco VanBoy in Polish RutNow part of this is due to the fact that I’m only driving Jigsaw for a few hundred klicks so far. She is a bit of duck – she’s tall, she’s wider than the wheels and she hasn’t got a roll/sway bar – and I’m going to have to get used to that.

Back at Earthcircuit HQ during the Stage1 construction phase, we were questioning the need for installing a roll bar. Jigsaw’s waddling qualities were well understood but I felt I was unlikely to be reaching high speeds much of the time and I was advised that on muddy, uneven terrain a roll bar would decrease traction. Truth is we ran out of time sourcing a suitable candidate from the scrap yards. Regretting that now.

Białystok

The race is on to get to the border with Russia in good time because our three month visa already started. We just had to put the frustration about speeding through these countries aside – Poland, a country I last visited twenty years ago, we pass through in a day before Lithuania and Latvia, countries I have never been to, are due to pass tomorrow. It will be worth it in the end.

Bruntál

bruntal map

In Bruntál, Moravia, the eastern part of Czech Republic, where Radka is from, we hold a small event. It’s just days now before we leave but so many things remain to be done – we still have to buy some dollars, get some booster vaccinations, buy a jack and wheel-brace for the Iveco while the Jigsaw needs a hook for the tea towel…