It was the first time I had ever planned a route taking into account the curvature of the earth; an epic drive home as directly and quickly as possible to reunite with family. Fortunately our Russian visas allowed us a window of 21 days in which to back-track across this colossal country. It had taken us 43 days to cross on our journey east. Heading west we had given ourselves 9.
Tranquil campsites were replaced with grimy truck-stop parking lots and ropey motels, sedate home-cooked meals swapped for dreary cafes and lorry driver’s canteens. Eyes on the perpetual horizon and always ready to embrace new travel experiences, we embarked on our gargantuan drive enjoying an intriguing insight into the wearisome world of Russian truckers.
For as little as £1 you can get a prime space in a ramshackle truck stop car park; a man with several scabby dogs acts as ‘security’ (we spent more feeding the ravenous canine crews). Toilet use involves minimal contact with as fewer surfaces as possible and frequently there is the optional extra of a makeshift wooden sauna (which we politely declined each time). For an accommodation upgrade (and potentially a shower) a motel is braved. Entertainment choices may include a crackly TV showing a few channels with a disproportionate number of violent police action dramas. No TV and you are resorted to playing ‘count the stain’, ‘crack a smile out of the owner’ or ‘avoid being electrocuted by the water tank plugged into a socket in the wet bathroom’.
The adjoining cafe may boast several items on a menu but eventually you reside yourself to the fact that if it’s not Borsch (Beetroot soup), Pelmeni (Siberian pasta dumplings) or Cutlet (unidentified fried meat shape) then the response will be a stern “NIET” from the waitress. After a long days drive, nothing says ‘appetizing’ like a bowl of doughy meat parcels bobbing about in tepid, greasy grey water with a blob of mayonnaise floating on the surface. Borsch looked more appealing (at least it had colour) with the added lottery-like anticipation that there might even be a piece of meat swimming at the bottom. Baltika beer was our saviour; what the Russians lack in culinary skills they make up for in brewing.
It was a poignant moment as we crossed from Russia into Ukraine and a gradual return to the familiar and straightforward; relieved that we had made it but sad to leave what has been an incredible and unforgettable country.