13 Baltics, Russia


After his double axle transplant, and other maintenance, Dipli (the Overlander motorhome) was shipped back to Germany, so that we could continue from where we had stopped the previous autumn. In Hannover and Berlin we stayed with friends, while waiting for visas. From Berlin we zipped through Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia & Estonia in 11 days. (Our Russian visa started 15/5/2000 and we did not want to waste summer time).

Centre of Europe

In Lithuania, 25km North of Vilnius, we found the Centre of Europe monuments. The tourist one, in a sculpture park (a small pyramid) and the real one, in the forest (a large rock engraved by the French geographic society). This was the first of our collection of “Centres of Continents”.

RUSSIA May/June 2000

The officials on the Russian side of the border with Estonia were quite friendly. However, a senior official had to produce a document, which would allow the vehicle in for 3 months, and took 3 hours to do this. It took 5½ hours to get through the border. (The whole visa procedure of invitation, application, obtaining and registering of business visas had taken 6 weeks and cost $480 for 2).

When we approached our first ex-soviet city, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Leoné was nervous and wanted to park in the outskirts and take the metro. But Jan just plunged into the traffic along the very bumpy urban streets. We battled to co-ordinate the Cyrillic street names with those on our map. Left turns are forbidden unless indicated. After some circles over the city canals, we parked right in the centre next to St Isaac’s Cathedral. We were never bothered by person or police (for the 4 days we stood there). We tried the motel parking North, 1½ hours out. It was a good venue to replace the clutch master cylinder seal, but we preferred to be central where Tsar PeterI, founder of the city (1709) and Tsarinas like Elizabeth and Catherine the Great had lived. It was possible to walk many kilometres to the splendours of palaces, cathedrals and statues. (sadly also many splendid buildings, and not only the roads, are decaying). The baroque winter palace from where tsars had ruled for centuries is now the Hermitage museum consisting of five ornate buildings. There are gilded rooms and halls with malachite pillars all with huge crystal chandeliers housing an awesome collection of treasures. Along the riverfront are fine views, also of people who sunbathe standing up!There were no more tickets for the ballet. Then a ticket tout sold us two (in a box) for Swan Lake. We could hardly see the stage! (5th level up and too near the stage). Fortunately a kind usherette moved us. Another time we enjoyed a folk dancing show accompanied by snacks of caviar and Russian champagne.

(Everything is much cheaper than in Western Europe). Peter’s Palace with fountains is 30km outside St Petersburg. More than 140 fountains, golden statues, cascades and the water avenue down to the sea, create one of the most beautiful sights we have seen.

On the way to Moscow we visited Tchaikovsky’s large, tree surrounded mansion, which still has his grand piano and personal effects.

MOSCOW has 9 million people. There are four ring roads and multi-laned freeways with large volumes of very fast moving traffic. Dipli also wanted to go to the Kremlin but the ban on left hand turns made it difficult and there was no parking anywhere. We were trying to move into a small triangle between two roads, when young guys in a Russian jeep appeared. They were members of the Russian 4x4 Club and were most enthusiastic about our vehicle and our journey. They escorted us to safe parking (with e-mail!) next to Oleg’s military shop. They extended an open invitation to their annual off road rally every June. club4x4@club4x4.ru

Once we had figured out the Cyrillic station names, we used the metro. It is very efficient. Stations are graffiti free and some are mosaic and sculptured marble works of art. One ride is only 4 Roubles (15 US cents.) We were amazed that the Kremlin boasts 30+ golden onion domes. Inside the armoury is an amazing collection of decorated weaponry, horse regalia, carriages, and gold and silver tableware. Now it is a tourist venue, but this is from where Stalin orchestrated his terrors.

On Red Square we joined the lines outside the red granite mausoleum, to go down dark stairs and file past Lenin’s pale embalmed body in black suit. Apart from Russian treasures, it was great to also see the large collections of French Impressionist paintings in St. Petersburg and Moscow (Some, they say, have not been stolen from Germany by the Red Army!).

We always felt safe. There seemed to be a strong police presence in the city centre and restaurants we ate at had two guards. Some typical Russian dishes in Moscow were “pelmeni” (large ravioli) and shashlik (grilled kebab). McDonald’s in Moscow centre is reckoned to be the busiest restaurant in the world (30,000+ customers a day).

Throughout Russia, all sizes of food shops were very well stocked. Before we left Moscow we stocked up at a hypermarket (the first & only one). There were some good SA wines at from $10 a bottle!; so we bought wine with Russian labels and lived to regret it.

On the outskirts was the first of many police roadblocks. We left Moscow and headed east. It was going to be our direction for 6000 km. We avoided some large cities and went slowly through the small villages. They were dull brown (wooden buildings) but had blue and green carved window frames and had intensively cultivated vegetable gardens. We filled our water tank from a street tap and made a woman’s day by buying a bucket full of potatoes. The chubby baby on her hip was covered with mosquito bites. Poor Russians, they freeze for 7 months of the year and then people and animals are plagued by bugs while they toil to collect food and wood for the next winter.

After crossing the mighty Volga river over a 5km bridge we searched for a restaurant in Kazan. The church, which had been a pump factory in Soviet times, was being restored. The anonymous grey city centre showed further ‘development’ by having red plastic chairs and Pepsi umbrellas placed on the uneven sidewalks. A meat cutlet with mushrooms and one with grilled cheese were tasty typical Russian dishes.

Around Ufa there were many oil drills in the middle of the flat wheat fields in between forests, which stretched interminably beyond the horizon.

After a stop to replace a radiator hose, we noticed some hills and curves in the road. The Russian trucks were overtaking as recklessly as usual. Next to the min roads there are memorials, decorated with artificial flowers and photos of victims of car accidents; sometimes even with the steering wheel of the fatal vehicle mounted!

And then we were on top of the Ural mountains. This was ASIA and the official beginning of SIBERIA! The images conjured up were of hostile territory, salt mines, snowbound exiles, forbidden cities (producing nuclear weapons). It is bigger than the United States (and Alaska) and all the countries of Europe combined!.

Russia: Urals: Europe/Asia

We drove and we camped and we drove and we drove, through mostly “taiga” forest with different textures and colours of green. While Jan looked out for the bumps in the road Leoné could notice the many different birds and wild flowers, (the pressings of which made her diary very fat).

Polite police

We were stopped at more than 60 police controls (“militsia”). We had Russian signs: “Greetings from South Africa“ on the front and back. At policeman eye level we had: “This is not a commercial truck. This is a private car. It is a house on wheels” (Russian does not have a word for motor home). This helped a great deal. They usually smiled and looked only at the International Driving Permit and International Certificate for Motor Vehicles, issued by the AA, with Russian language pages. Although we learnt some Russian words, we could never figure out whether they were asking where we came from or our destination or nationality.

Diesel was only US$0.20/litre. One has to pay first, before the pump is activated, which makes it difficult to fill up, as you need to calculate consumption accurately. (about 17,2 litres/100km for Dipli, now at about 5800kg gross).Every lay-bye on the thousands of km Eastbound, has a smoking shashlik grill.

Tea was dispensed from a large urn (“samovar”) with an inner heating tube filled with charcoal. It was strong and had a smoky taste.

Occasionally we joined the Trans-Siberian lorries at truck stops, which often had a café in an old railway carriage, where you can also buy tasty “borscht” soup for 50¢.

From Moscow we went through 6 time zones and had to remember to adjust watches. If we did not want a disturbed night we headed into the forest. Sometimes we were on velvet green grass next to a small lake or surrounded by pale Birch tree trunks. We never sat outside for very long because, in spite of repellents, the mozzies harassed us too much. We also had repeatedly been warned about the ticks that cause encephalitis.

Soviet cities are awful. Access roads are full of holes and run next to smoke belching operations or past derelict factory complexes and heaps of rusted scrap steel. The large grey concrete apartment blocks (“kvartiri”) are strung one after the other with no decoration or levelling in between. When we went in for a museum, e-mail or a meal-out, we tried to make our way out of the city, with no signposting, to be in the countryside before dark (11pm).

City dwellers also have their vegetable gardens (“dachas”) outside the cities, without which they would not survive. They earn very little and salaries are often in arrears. In streets and along main roads people sit entire days trying to trade a few sunflower seeds, some lilies or berries and mushrooms from the forest for a few Kopecks.

We were driving in circles in Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) when we realised we were being followed. It was a kind Russian who could speak some English. He took us to a friend’s computer game centre where we were able to use the Internet; fast and cheap. This was the city where Sverdlovsk had orchestrated the murder of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife, 5 children and servants. We walked through a park with large rock samples from the Ural mountains. Our guidebook recommended the Opera and Ballet theatre restaurant. We were delighted that it’s menu had coloured pictures of all the dishes. As everywhere in Russia, the menu states the exact weight of each item on the plate, even down to the slice of lemon at 10g!

The main road went through the outer suburbs of Omsk. There were no road signs. First there was the area with faceless apartment blocks, rutted roads with poor drainage. In a section with log houses we came across some neat food stores., with the usual inexpensive but good Russian bread. The shops had “Magazin” or “Produkti” written on the front. Inside every item was very clearly marked. A customer has to queue three times. First to order, then to pay at the cashier and then to collect the goods (Trust nobody….).

Novosibirsk was another functional sprawling industrial city. In front of the Opera and Ballet theatre were the typical Soviet statues of peasant, soldier, worker and Lenin. It was a surprise to find an absolutely delightful Gallery of 20th Century Russian Art with paintings, ceramics and puppets.

Centre of Asia

We took a 1700km side excursion to a remote corner of Russia. Set in picturesque grass covered mountains, on the upper Yenisey river is the Republic of Tuva, renowned for its nationalistic Asian people, throat singing and the Centre of Asia Monument.

Tuva: Kyzil; Centre of Asia

For overnight parking, we moved from the river closer to the hotel. The entire night there was loud disco music, cars revving, shouting drunks and people patting Dipli and kicking the wheels. The following day we met an Irish professor of English who says he earns about 15¢US an hour at the local university. He showed us his vegetable garden outside Kyzyl. It was close to a camp of typical tents made of felt, where we heard throat singing and had a typical Tuvian meal with salty tea and a clear drink made from fermented milk.

Back in Krasnoyarsk we were on the Trans Siberian route again.

Street decorations were still illuminated hammer-and-sickle emblems. A local man escorted us to a street market to buy a new tube for Dipli. The business centre of the Hotel Krasnoyarsk had expensive e-mail and good views over the Yenisey river. Boats go 2000km up this River to the Arctic Ocean. It was 30°C and we cooled off on the deck of a hotel ship.

Net prevents butterflies from clogging radiator.

By the end of June, when we reached Irkutsk, the Russian gardens had started producing: for the first time fresh lettuce and carrots and also strawberries were being sold by street vendors. Our first stop at Lake Baikal was close to Irkutsk. It had a bustling parking bay with souvenir sellers, fish smokers, day-trippers in Russian cars and Japanese 4x4 vehicles. A Russian businessman invited us for a hotel dinner and some Baikal Vodka. At the next two camps we had the pebbly beach and the beautiful Lake to ourselves and watched the sunset at 22h30. The lake is crystal clear, drinkably pure. When frozen, the ice is also transparent. It is 636km long (as far as Jhb to Durban). It is the deepest at 1637m, largest in volume, and the world’s most ancient lake. Nowhere have we been more impressed by the Trans Siberian Railway as an engineering feat as around Lake Baikal over marshes and bridges through tunnels and taiga; Moscow to Vladivostok : 9200km (6½ days.).

From where we entered Russia at St. Petersburg to leaving for Mongolia, just beyond Ulan Ude, we had travelled over 9000km in 50 days.

Russia: Ulan Ude: Dipli meets Lenin

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