It’s hard to tell if Russia has benefitted from the fall of communism in anyway, as outsiders we have no benchmark to compare it to. Our first impressions were of a country that was slowly falling apart; the roads are appalling, buildings are subsiding and according to Time magazine, Russia is ranked fairly high in the world’s most corrupt economically developed countries.
One thing that is apparent having spent time there is that Russia is a country of extreme contrast. The freezing winter temperature often hits -40°C, whilst we have experienced sweltering summer temperatures of +37°C with, surprisingly, not a furry hat in sight!
Many major city centres have started rebuilding roads and restoring great buildings, but the outskirts are still drab depressing suburban tower blocks that are slowly falling apart at the seams. Westernization (good or bad) is slowly setting in, Macdonald’s is a regular feature and some cities even welcome tourists in a somewhat ‘novice’ kind of way.
Outside of the big cities it is not unusual to see woman tending fields in a style evocative of the 17th Century whilst Mercedes race past on perfect motorways that can turn into dirt tracks without warning.
The countryside is vast and can be a little overwhelming; on our first day we drove for 8 hours straight, through hundreds of miles of forest that enclosed the road. In that time we didn’t pass one house. The landscape didn’t change much for the first week. On attempting to camp we were continually greeted at every track into the forest by huge piles of rubbish; this was typical of the entire country were seemingly it is ok to ruin the natural beauty of a place by playing excessively loud euro-trance from your car and dumping rubbish.
The country as a whole is very beautiful but it wasn’t until we travelled further east that the forest dissipated and a slightly more interesting landscape opened out before us. The Lake Baikal area was a real highlight. The Ural Mountains (hills) were a real disappointment.
As visitors driving through the country we encountered a large cross section of the population. Generally speaking, Russian’s are very serious people with a rude temperament; occasionally they will let you past their tough exterior and be friendly, warm-hearted and sometimes even smile. Normally this unusual phenomenon is fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, which seemingly is a large problem in Russia. Alcoholism coupled with the language barrier made it hard for us to understand situations; often we were left feeling a little uneasy, as it seems the Russian’s have a fiery temper and it was hard for us to know if we’d upset them.
Sadly, it is said that in Russia a person who smiles too often is generally classed as insane. The deadpan facial expression is common and can leave you a little bemused. Mostly, Russia is filled with the unwelcoming stern-faced Russian who answers ‘nyet’ in a deadpan monotone to every question. This type of Russian normally sees everything in black and white, with no room for negotiation, especially with a foreign tourist. Occasionally we were met by the opposite end of the spectrum; a new, younger Russian, who seemingly understands the importance of allowing foreigners into Russia, and is very proud of their country and will go above and beyond to help.
Our experience of Russia was initially one of ‘oh god what have we let ourselves in for’, once we got to grips with the language (a little) and the culture the old phrase ‘judging a book by it’s cover’ became very apt. Despite cultural differences (mostly alcohol related) we really enjoyed our time in Russia and met some truly great people. We can’t wait to return when we pop back through from Mongolia to get into Kazakhstan.