Hours of journeying on fast, busy, noisy motorways, slowing down only temporarily to circumnavigate the choked outskirts of sprawling cities, had started to take it’s toll on us and we yearned again for a quieter journey and to experience rural areas away from the clamour and chaos of the highway. We decided to take a detour that would allow us to witness the magnificent Kremlin of Tobolsk, then follow the Irtysh River as it flowed southeast, bypassing the huge cities of Omsk and Novosibirsk and re-joining our route towards Tomsk in the East.
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.
At several points on our 1cm=30km map, where the road ‘crossed’ a river we were met, not by a bridge, but by an array of ageing ‘boats’; some that can only be described as rusting, floating wooden platforms nudged, shoved and arduously towed by a small, underpowered motorboat throttling under the strain and belching fumes as it struggles across the water channel. With no sense of urgency, these ‘ferries’ wait until they have enough vehicles to warrant the 150m crossing, and so it was we spent an hour with no shade in the sweltering Siberian heat until ourselves, a milk truck, a pick-up and the obligatory Lada were loaded via a precarious ramp from the beach and positioned to balance our vessel for the 8 minute voyage.
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.