To be totally honest, we were afraid of Russia. It sounded like a repressed, dictatorial, scary place that only serves cold sour soup and starchy potatoes. We were told to expect suicidal/homicidal maniacs in place of sane drivers, and that random police searches would become part of our daily routine. We bought a carton of Marlboros in preparation. We wondered whether there would be paved roads. We thought Moscow would swallow us into a belly of colourless concrete, speckled with lurking shadowy bad guys and overly-glitzty women. After all, didn’t Eve’s Russian dishwasher repairman say to us, directly: “Russia is shithole. Why you go there?”
With all that build up, I’m sure you can guess my next literary move. Russia is decidedly NOT a shithole. Sure, there are some rough corners. But Moscow glitters like sea of sparkly pastel jewels, with elegantly lit bars, shiny expensive cars, and delicate white detailing on stately pink, seafoam, and peach buildings. It’s the cleanest city we’ve been too, bar
maybe Monaco or Luxembourg. It’s charming and largely liveable. And surprisingly western – it has Starbucks and Duncan Donuts and a Spongebob Sqaurepants themed restaurant. It even looked like they actually bought the rights to use Mr. Squarepants legitimately.
The countryside is filled with trees, gold-topped candy coloured churches, trees, houses in primary colours with ornate wooden window trimmings, and trees. In addition, there are many used-tire retailers, semi trucks, and also trees. I forgot to mention the abundance of trees.
For example, Luke had a pooping problem (don’t get mad at me, you’re the one who signed up to read an overland blog), so we had to make an emergency stop about an hour outside of the centre of Moscow. We ran into what turned out to be a fancy sushi restaurant, which had an American-size menu and every type of sushi and vaguely Japanese-related food that we are accustomed to. I definitely didn’t expect this sort of thing of Russia.
That being said, things aren’t all stereotype-busting. There’s the lack of smiling that I mentioned previously. There are definitely way more police than any other country I’ve been to, though we’ve only been pulled over once and it was a quick routine check. Everyone seems to be wearing army fatigues, like as a fashion thing, but we have trouble telling who the real army people are. There are more rifles hanging off people with shoulder straps than I would like. Of course, the Soviet apartment blocks are omnipresent and dreary. We have to beg and cajole hotels into doing the registration paperwork required for foreigners. I don’t know what’s happening behind people’s apartment doors, or behind Putin’s office doors, but I’m guessing it’s not all sunshine and roses. And we have seen antics by drivers so dangerous, rivalling and sometimes topping Italy and Latvia. Luke is probably proud of himself that he has only flipped one bird thus far, and that was because a person was literally 6 inches from hitting us. Otherwise, Russia is perfect.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Moscow. By accident, we slept next door to the Kremlin. I was just trying to find a hotel with secure parking; I succeeded. The hotel was on the innermost Moscow ring road (of about 10 concentric ring roads, might I add). We could see the Kremlin from our window. We were just drifting off to sleep the first of our two nights there, when we heard explosions coming from the area of the Kremlin and Red Square. I leapt out of bed – it was fireworks. Beautiful fireworks over the Kremlin. Magic. Speaking of the Kremlin, it is gorgeous. Putin wasn’t there; apparently he hangs out mostly outside of the city these days.
We have had a few adventures, though.
Our first breakdown
Firstly, I’ll say that I am decidedly not a car person. Luke, thank the heavens, is. He’s like a dog whisperer, for engines. He’s uncomfortable with, and disagrees with, that praise. Anyway, even I know that when something starts banging around under the hood like a hammer in a dryer, and your engine begins to squeak like a Belieber, it’s time to pull on over.
The goddess of engine troubles was clearly smiling upon us this day, though, because the first opportunity to pull over – about an hour north of Moscow, by the way – was, from what we could tell, a semi-truck repair warehouse. We diagnosed the problem as well as we could (and by that I mean Luke diagnosed it while I held the light). We did find the air conditioning belt had flown off and wrapped itself around the main radiator fan, and we found another belt had been pulled off and stripped into shreds.
But it was no good – we needed help. I went over to the ancient guard man sitting by the entrance and asked if he spoke English. Like most people, he just nodded in the affirmative and fixed me with an unreadable gaze. Yeah, definitely no English. But, a few minutes later he came ambling over, took a look at the engine, motioned for us to wait, and got on his phone. Another guy shows up to look at the car. This guy’s more gregarious, and keeps speaking Russian, telling us stories and jokes, we’re guessing. Both guys don’t understand the idea of google translate, so that’s no help. We pretend to listen for a while, and I frantically try to call up Helen, Eve’s au pair, who speaks Russian, for help.
A few minutes later, a couple more guys show up. For the third time, Luke shows off the engine. A few minutes later, another 2 or 3 guys show up, a couple in mechanic’s overalls. At this point, we’ve got a flock of Russian mechanics crowded around the car, debating with one another. Thankfully, one has a few words of English, but most critically, knows his way around google translate. They all bend over the engine (one with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth), and eventually come to the conclusion it’s safe to drive. They point to a spot on google maps where we can get it fixed the next day. We tossed a few of them boxes of Marlboros as they went, so they could dangle them over other engines. Better to give thanks than bribes.
I should mention the best part of this whole experience. Remember the original ancient security guard who I asked for help? He spoke no English, but he did speak German. Given the extremely complicated relationship between the Russians and the Germans (and the whole extremely bloody battles during WWII, German betrayal and invasion, etc.), we were very intrigued by how he might have learned German. And he was DELIGHTFUL. While all the mechanics were looking at the car, he and I were standing back. A phone rang, the tone an upbeat little ditty, and he started doing a hidden little dance – just a shake of his hand – and winked at me. Not in a creepy way, in a Grandpa way. He looked like he was saying goodbye to his grandchildren when we left.
Anyway, we gingerly drove our baby an hour into Moscow, and back out into the garage in the suburbs the next day, as she squealed and hissed and just generally gave us heart palpitations. Thankfully, though, all was well in the end. The garage was a large, clean, modern Mitsubishi dealership. Efficient mechanics took care of her right away. They kept us abreast of the situation through a combination of google translate and a mechanic who spoke English (on account of a previous career as a Boeing airline mechanic). We sat in the cushy waiting room, snacking from the vending machine, for a few hours. The bill was cheap. They even cleaned the car for us.
(For mechanical details, please enquire. It’s boring for me.)
Our first free camp
Many of you are acquainted with our dear friends, Michael and Shosh, AKA our wedding officiants. They are a major reason we’re on this trip at all – they have done two overland bicycle holidays in Europe and encouraged us on our overland ambitions. They may judge us slightly for our choice of motorised vehicle, but we all have our differences. Anyway, one thing they told us would be FINE is free camping – i.e., just pulling off the road and sleeping in a nice spot. Other, vehicle-supported overlanders also say this is fine. It’s cool, they say, I often just pull off the road in Uzbekistan/Columbia/Mongolia and pitch a tent. No big deal. You can too.
So, inspired by these super cool people, we tried it. We pulled off the road in Russia and slept.
To be more accurate, we pulled off of the road 3 or 4 times until we found a suitable spot, out of view of the road and not, as far as we could tell, going to anyone’s house or anything. We engaged our 4WD and chose a nice little flat spot with a view of a valley and river. Charming extras included freeway noise, a mosquito-infested mud puddle, and trash from all the previous campers. The most scenic of this last category was a used condom. Excellent.
We didn’t sleep too well, this first night of free camping. But, we love our bed and the free price tag so much that we will definitely do it again. We feel flushed with the success of not being murdered, mugged, or mauled by a bear.
After all, the cool kids do it all the time, so it must be fine.
Our first off road adventure
Our TomTom app, bless it, told us that we were about to hit some heavy traffic heading into a town – about 40 minutes added to our journey. So we decided to take a “short cut.” Actually, it wasn’t a terrible idea. We did pretty well. We only added about 35 minutes to our journey.
And we got to do some excellent off roading – splashing through mud puddles, losing traction and fishtailing, driving through grasses a meter tall, spinning the wheels in deep thick mud. A couple times I got out and moonwalked myself over to puddles to check their depth before we made the plunge. At one point, we found it necessary to open and drive through a farm gate, eliciting curious stares from the grandmas inside. At another point, a guy on a bike stopped to bemusedly watch us slip and slide through a particularly muddy section. It’s too bad we accidentally lost our dash cam videos of this, because I was giggling like an idiot the whole time. Overall, the experience made us excited to go through Mongolia, which, from what we understand, will entail 1600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of this type of terrain.
And finally, History
As usual, we’ve been listening to Russian history lessons as we drive. It’s incredibly disturbing. Russia’s history seems to be a never ending wheel of mass starvations, mass slaveries, mass murders, and massively dickhead leaders. Some of the more recent history – in the last century – has given Luke and I a new fascination with old people. If you’re in your 80s or older here, you have seen some earth-shattering shit. I find myself searching strangers faces, like a creepster, trying to read their histories and experiences.
Even the most beautiful places seem to have terribly tragic histories. Take this beautiful monastery on an island on Lake Seliger (a few hours north of Moscow, near the town of Ostashkov). We took a boat there, over the calm water and past the green swaying reeds. It’s gorgeous, right? Yeah, during and after WWII, it was a prison camp. For children. (Among other disturbing or odd functions it has performed over the decades.) About 20 years ago it was handed back to the Russian Orthodox Church, and is once again inhabited only by black-robed monks, as well as a steady flow of local tourists.
We’ve got one more days in Russia (there’s a couple of days in Russia I haven’t covered in this post). We’ll then hit the border of Kazhakstan, where we expect to drive about 7-8 hours a day until we hit Russia again. Thank goodness for audiobooks!
Pechory and the road to Ostashkov
Ostashkov and Lake Seliger
Torzhok and the road to Moscow
Moscow and the beginning of the road south