Visiting a town or city in Russia on a Saturday, particularly in July, we are guaranteed to witness several wedding parties. Following the marriage service, it is customary for the entire wedding party to drive around the city in convoy visiting local beauty spots and landmarks. The bride and groom look extremely young; they arrive in the first of a procession of cars, decorated with plastic flowers and ornaments, all the vehicles pulling up in a cacophony of loud beeping.
On this particular Saturday we had arrived in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. The city boasts a magnificent, high-walled, 16th Century, white limestone Kremlin; a stunning sight against the vivid blue sky. A Kremlin or ‘fortification’ is the stronghold of a city, housing important government buildings and places of worship within its huge, imposing walls. Tartarstan bridges Europe and Asia, so this Kremlin contained both a beautiful turquoise-topped Mosque and a blue and gold-domed Cathedral. As this is the major historical site in Kazan, we witnessed 4 separate wedding parties tour the site, periodically posing for photographs. The glamorous female guests totter on vertiginous high-heeled shoes that should come with a safety warning, the brides in white range from elegant lace chic to burlesque, risqué Barbie.
The bride and groom are flanked by 2 witnesses; identified by wearing a red sash, they are typically the best friends of the bride and groom. A procession of friends and family clutching bottles of Russian ‘champagne’ and beer follow them; complete inebriation by the end of the day is a necessity for all guests. A new tradition seems to be the fixing of initial-bearing padlocks and ribbons at scenic spots; we have come across several of these sites including river pagodas, bridges and railings overlooking a view.
We have been lucky enough to be bystanders at many wedding parties as we travel throughout Russia, although we have now left the Kremlins behind us in the West we hope that there will be many more weird and wonderful traditions and celebrations along the way.
Days on the road = 45
Highest temperature = 38°C
Bear encounters = None (Despite trying to lure them out with meat)
Distance travelled = 6043 Miles/9725 km
Injuries to Bee-Bee = 8
Fuel Station Stops = 36
No. of countries visited = 10
Eagle encounters = Many
Photographs taken = 1967
Kremlin count = 4
Ferry crossings = 10
Times stopped by the police = 3
Embarrassingly, us Brits too often rely on others knowledge of our mother tongue when travelling. With every good intention to communicate with the natives, we armed ourselves with phrase books and even spent the last few weeks prior to our departure driving to work listening to a ‘Леарн Руссиан’ CD in favour of the breakfast show. Russian is the largest native language in Europe and spoken by 144 million people. Unfortunately, following our initial attempts, this statistic is highly unlikely to rise to 144,000002.
The problem with phrase books is firstly you have to frantically flick to the relevant page (hoping your topic is included), and then piece together the sentence. Secondly, you have to be able to pronounce the phrase correctly, taking into account the prolific use of unfamiliar zh, v and rrrr sounds in Russian speech. Finally, even if you successfully complete steps one and two, the chances of understanding the response to your question are slim to none. Even if that response is repeated several times in increasing volume levels.
Our guidebook speaks of wonderful places of interest but the town names are in English and our Atlas in Cyrillic; cue painstaking conversion letter by letter (ю is a letter?!?) to translate the place, then locate it on the map. Take for example looking for signs for the town of Жиздра. Our initial description would sound something like this “spider, backwards N, three, chimney, P, A” when in fact it is pronounced zheh-ee-zeh-deh-rrr-ar. Add to this the fact you’re travelling 80kmph on a motorway and signs are infrequent at best and you have a real navigational challenge. We now have a series of post-it notes stuck on the dashboard listing the upcoming towns in Cyrillic and have learnt to recognise essential words such as “Centre” “Stop” and “Diesel” through repeated observation.
Striving to taste local cuisine yet being faced with an indecipherable menu is a frustrating predicament. On one occasion we had to settle with ordering “one meat, one fish” to a confused waiter. Dictionary in hand, a second determined attempt to decode a basic menu took so long the kitchen had closed and we were left with a bag of crisps. You would think supermarkets would be easier, being able to see the food items, but twice we have poured drinking yoghurt into our tea and bitten into cheese pastries to accompany a beer only to discover they’re custard. Then we discovered the canteen; a traditional eatery for workers, these bustling eateries are self-service with all the food on display in various counters; salad, soup, cold food, hot food and dessert. Extremely good-value (around £3 each) we are able to try all the typical Russian cuisine we had only read about until now (even if some of it looked as unfamiliar as it’s Cyrillic name).
Verbal communication is by no means the sole way to interrelate with local people. We have experienced some memorable interactions; laughing with a husband as his wife waded miles from the lakeshore in an attempt to reach deeper swimming water, the bemused couple who on seeing our rooftent invited us to their home to stay with “tea, coffee… vodka!” The giggles of an ice-cream vendor as she realised she had given me a cone plus double its value in change and hilarious pictionary-style ‘games’ indicating details of city directing, diesel filling and grocery purchasing. Occassionally ‘Lost in Translation’ but as the days go by in Russia, increasingly finding our way.
Driving allows us to get a real feel for a country, especially in a land as vast as Russia. In 10 days we have probably seen more of the country than most of its inhabitants will in a lifetime.
On our trip it has become apparent that each country has a style of driving that is representative of that countries people. The Germans drive with precision, The Norwegians are courteous and the Russians chaotic!
In Northern Russia many of the roads are literally falling apart at the seams. Most of the roads are subsiding and it is not uncommon to hit 5, 10, 15, 20cm deep potholes. Driving is tiresome and not too dissimilar to playing some kind of concentration heavy computer game. Your eyes are constantly flitting between the immediate road ahead and what canyon sized hazards may be approaching in the distance. This demanding style of driving means that swerving cars are commonplace. This makes for a challenging ride in a right-hand drive vehicle once you take into consideration the Russian approach to overtaking!
Steering Wheel Shrines, at the sides of the potholed roads, covered in bright plastic flowers mark the spots of fatal accidents. These tragic mementos do nothing to deter the Russian drivers who choose to ignore the solid white lines and no overtaking signs and insist on passing on blind corners, hill brows and occasionally on the inside on the even more potholed dirt hard shoulder. Apparently overtaking as close as you can to the car in front is the only way.
Occasionally we’ll witness an act of stupidity that demonstrates the prevalence of verge memorials. Once you’ve witnessed a man on a moped with no helmet being towed at about 60mph by a rope wrapped around his handlebars and back to the car it’s hard to be shocked by children cycling or teens riding on the roofs of Ladas on the motorway.
Driving on the M8 south, the main carriageway joining Arkhangelsk in the north and Moscow in the south, we are part of and often overtaken by huge road trains of lunatic Russian truck drivers. The trucks, many un-roadworthy, travelling at speed and often no more than 3 metres behind the one in front, belch out black noxious diesel fumes as they motor through the Russian countryside on this single lane highway. Woman work the fields, raking hay occasionally looking up as this ‘Mad Max’ train rumbles by, the scene is reminiscent of Turner’s famous painting ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ where the workers in the fields marvel at the steam locomotive racing by.
Driving in the cities is equally as dangerous as on the rural roads. The road surfaces are generally better but round every corner the possibility of swerving cars and potholes still beckon. At times the 8 lane wide streets don’t even have a centre line let alone individual lanes. Like the rural roads, overtaking, undertaking and occasionally forcing your way through are all the norm. This lack of road markings can be a real nightmare at major road junctions. If you are lucky they have traffic lights, not that the Russian’s obey them, and if you are unlucky the junction collides at 90 degrees with another fast moving 4 lane wide highway where seemingly no one has right of way. To top off the whole junction experience often the Russian’s will place a 50m long zebra crossing on each side.
Due to the nature of Russian driving habits accidents happen often and when they do the Russian way to deal with them throws another danger into the road. When cars collide, no matter how minimal, the done thing is to stop immediately. The drivers are expected to leave the cars exactly where they are and get out and stand next to their car, no matter how fast the traffic around them is moving, and wait for the police to arrive.
Chaos ensues as cars block the road and drivers take risks to get past the stranded vehicles and their owners. Don’t panic! As surely once the police are on the scene they’ll take some kind of precautions to calm the traffic, clear the road and make sure the traffic starts to flow? Actually no, what happens is the complete opposite, the police arrive, park badly in the street adding to the chaos and spend about two hours deciding whose fault the accident was with the drivers involved. The whole time this is happening no warning signs are placed, no traffic control enforced and all the police focus on are the cars involved as traffic continues to motor past. Once the police have decided whose to blame the cars are moved and the police leave, clearly it’s not their job to sweep the road of any debris or clean up spilt oil and fuel!
If by some miracle you make it through this motoring minefield you’re likely to get pulled over by the traffic police who inextricably stop vehicles randomly. Luckily having a right hand drive car helps as they always approach the passenger side where Emma awaits with a smile and the phrase “Prabliem, turist?” at which point we are more than often told to drive on!
Luckily we have avoided any serious dramas. We have had a couple of close calls though; the most serious being when a red brick being carried by an oncoming overloaded truck bounced off on a bump and came flying towards our car on the motorway. We watched in slow-motion horror as the truck motored past obliviously at 50+mph and the brick bounced across the road towards our car (travelling at 50+mph). Some serious reaction swerving meant we missed it by inches, as small fragments ricocheted off the bottom of our car.
A Russian summertime brings with it glorious hot, sunny days, ‘white nights’ of almost no darkness, swimming in rivers and al fresco drinking and dining in cities. Unfortunately for wild campers it brings something else; a deluge of winged camp invaders in a variety of invertebrate forms. Pulling up to what from the inside of the car looks like an idyllic site has become a lottery as to what will be the flying organism of choice that evening. The ubiquitous mosquito makes a guaranteed appearance but at varying intensities; at times we have been met by hordes of the blood-sucking beasts and literally dived from the car, hastily putting up the roof tent then a mad scramble up the ladder, swatting at bare ankles and ‘battening down the hatches’ with skilful zipping action. The eternal daylight means it’s a constant aerial attack so come morning the ‘mozzy dance’ is performed in reverse, complete with air swiping, leg whacking and face wafting.
Could it get worse? Absolutely… giant horse flies swoop from the sky at another pitch, relentlessly dive-bombing and occasionally inflicting a painful bite. Large size isn’t always an airborne insects best advantage, tiny midges swarm in their thousands; their minute proportions allowing them to squeeze through the tents window mesh and land stealthily to nip unnoticed.
In contrast, we have arrived at tranquil countryside meadows to be greeted by more graceful, beautiful (and harmless) winged creatures in the form of butterflies, moths and crickets in a stunning variety of shapes and colours. One white butterfly aggregates in huge numbers, making even roadside rubbish piles aesthetically pleasing. When camping on the banks of the River Volga we encountered magnificent dragon flies and witnessed the metamorphosis of mayflies en-masse, leaving their ghostly white, fragile cases in their hundreds on one side of the roof tent as they emerged swiftly into fully-formed winged adults.
As with many things encountered during travelling in strange new countries, patience increases and (one of us) has started to learn that unleashing a tirade of profanities in the direction of any mini-beast is futile. As we cross into Asia from the European side of Russia we are ready to face whatever new life forms are out there (with an insect field guide in one hand and a raised flip-flop in the other).
After a 4-hour ferry ride we arrived in Norway: land of the midnight sun. In stark contrast to a very flat Denmark we soon arrived at a hill, a hill that soon turned into a mountain. In a very short period we climbed 1250 metres to above the tree line and into the snow. For Emma who lived in the Middle East for the last 9 years and whose last experience of Snow was at Ski Dubai, this was a real treat.
Our driving experience in Norway has been like our very own episode of ‘Top Gear’, it is a motorist’s paradise. The roads are relatively devoid of traffic, the views are stunning and it is like each turn has been lifted from the Nurburgring.
It’s glaringly obvious that the Roman’s never made it as far north as Norway; they probably turned up at the border, realized their ‘Roman Road’ ideology wasn’t going to work and turned around.
The Norwegian’s however took a different approach! If something is in the way stick a road to the side of it, if that fails dig a tunnel straight through the middle of it…or in the case of the extreme descent from the summit of the Folgefonna Glacier down to the Hardangerfjorden, cut a disorientating 2km spiral tunnel that descends corkscrew like through the cliff edge. This marvel of engineering isn’t a concrete super structure lined with fluorescent lights but more resembled a 19th Century mineshaft filled with lingering exhaust fumes.
The reward for enduring such a disconcerting rollercoaster ride was well worth it as we emerged at the jaw-droppingly beautiful fjord.
Round every corner in Norway is an even more astounding vista than the previous one, framed perfectly by the edges of our windscreen. Due to the commonplace nature of these views we soon became fairly blasé and the en-route in-car photographs mounted up. Occasionally some of the views warranted actually stopping the car and getting out, normally in conjunction with some kind of extreme hill climb that had pushed Bee-Bee’s overloaded cooling system to the limit.
For some reason I can’t fathom, Norway has a huge amount of classic American cars. I saw 3 Mustangs, A Dodge Charger, Trans-Am’s, two Chevy Impala’s and countless 70’s Chevy Vans and Pick-Ups.
The American muscle made up for the lack of bear sightings; we did however see plenty of reindeer as we travelled through Scandinavia, we also ate some too. The elusive Elk also remained unspotted, apparently if you are driving the Elk is the last animal you’ll want to see. They stand at least 230 cm tall and when you hit them they spin over and their heavy feet smash through your windscreen. For countries so full of stunning scenery there was a serious lack of wildlife. Emma spotted a Pine-Martin (I know, I’d never heard of one too!) and that was about it!
Travelling north through Norway was a real treat, you dip and climb from frozen ice caps to crystal clear, mirror-like Fjord waters that morph into brilliant-white snow-covered ice-fields again. The melting ice waters are transformed into powerful torrents of milky blue river water that cut through the landscape creating dramatic ravines; crashing over harsh rock rapids downwards towards the next tranquil fjord.
We saw distinct changes with each day as we travelled directly north towards the Arctic Circle; the Midnight Sun became more extreme to the point at our most northerly the light barely dipped for an hour.
The Arctic Circle was a milestone for us, back home in the UK it all seemed so far away and to actually get there felt like a great achievement. It was not quite what I was expecting though; I envisaged maybe a signpost, a polar bear and some kind of native fishing around an ice hole. Instead we got hoards of motorhomes, a massive tourist information centre and a wealth of tourist tat at exaggerated tourist prices.
Sweden is like Norway’s ugly sister; Don’t get me wrong, I still would it’s just she’s a little flat and featureless in comparison (well the North at least). The real problem with Sweden though is due to it’s flat nature it doesn’t have much running water, in turn a lot of still lakes; everywhere we went in Sweden we were hounded by mosquitoes.
Like Norway’s American muscle car mystery Sweden also has a few motoring anomalies. I spotted at least 5 trucks, 1 mini van and a late 80’s Merc with some awesomely bad airbrush work. This isn’t really surprising considering the size of the country but when you discover that we just drove across the Northern part (Norland) in an afternoon the figures seem rather high.
The other observation that was made during this short period of time is that the Swedes love a spotlight, not surprising when you consider that it is dark here for about 70 days straight in winter. Every car has spotlights from the latest BMW’s to the oldest Volvo’s (of which there are thousands)…But the Swedes don’t just have one extra pair of spotlights or subtle little LED ones hidden away in the bumpers, the chosen amount is three massive individual lights placed in a row between the two main headlights. The larger the diameter the better, 8 inches is not unusual.
With the dark winters, forests and snowy conditions it’s easy to see how this ‘neck of the woods’ creates so many great rally drivers.
Sweden was a bit of a blur as we motored straight through towards Finland and Russia. Travelling east we noticed a distinct change in the people, the Fins are much more serious than the Norwegians and Swedes. In Finland we stopped at a city called Oulo to get a taste of Finnish living. The market there sold a delectable display of traditional Finnish foods including ‘Elk in a Can’ and every kind of Salmon you could imagine. The city also has an odd mocking statue of a rather portly policeman, I had the obligatory photograph stood next to the little fella.
We randomly came across a great campsite near the Russian border and decided one last shower would be needed before our crossing. The campsite was so great in fact that we decided to stay two nights so we could really kick back and relax. The hammock got an outing and as we were in Finland we decided to test out the campsites Sauna followed by jumping naked into the freezing lake.
It was at this campsite we met a lovely Finnish couple who gave us all the advice we needed on Russia. The advice didn’t actually make me feel anymore confident about our impending crossing. The area we were about to cross into was bear country, we’re likely to get robbed; possibly at gun point and no one is going to talk English. On the plus side though the area we choose to cross was a quiet border and so it would likely take just a few hours…