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.