The road bends, winds and dips following the watercourse as it meanders serenely southeast through Siberia. Our grumbles about the state of the main ‘red’ highways paled into insignificance as we quickly downgraded on the map from yellow roads ‘with covering’, white ‘without covering’ to grey ‘un-surfaced’. The roads are in terrible condition; potholes, ridges, gravel, mud, sand and dust. If you are unfortunate enough to get stuck behind a slow-moving truck, the clouds of dust it kicks up reduce visibility to almost zero, rendering it almost impossible to overtake and necessitating the windows to be kept tightly shut, increasing the in-car temperature rapidly. Progress was ‘leisurely’ but allowed us to observe our surroundings off the beaten track.
Agriculture is on a simpler, smaller-scale; gone are the characterless, machine-rolled hay bales of the highway fields and in their place traditional haystacks, laboriously piled high by hand by gangs of farm workers with pitchforks. Farmers dawdle along the roadside on ancient-looking horse and carts and families bump along the gritty tracks on motorbikes with children balanced not in a sidecar, but some kind of homemade platform. Pockets of woodland are dotted amongst meadows with huge swathes of pink wildflowers, the clover so fragrant you can smell it as you drive past. On one occasion, our camp was visited by a group of young red foxes, a male sniffing and investigating the car as we watched from our roof tent vantage point.
Upon entering a village, the road forks in several directions. The small wooden houses, almost all of which suffer from subsidence and sit awkwardly at uneven angles, display the most intricate, blue and white painted carved edges around the window and door frames. Piles of wood are meticulously stacked in preparation for the long winter ahead and groups of cows, horses and sheep amble through the sandy streets, with as much enthusiasm as the man pumping water from the well or the young girl pushing her buggy over the corrugated mud road.
Entertainment is limited for young people in rural Russia; this was made evident at 2am one morning when we realised our idyllic campsite overlooking a stunning river vista was actually the favourite nightspot of the nearest village youth population. Excessive drinking, crass, banging, distorted Euro-pop and fires lit with several litres of petrol encouraged us to evacuate camp and head into the fog-filled night.