Location: 49° 48′ 09″N 73° 05’23″E (Central Kazakhstan)
Distance from Sydney: 12,129km
Firstly, an apology. It has been quite some time since the last update. I did write a big fat juicy update almost a week ago, but shortly after completing it, the laptop died, never to be recovered. The good news is that due to Andres’ good organisation, we lost zero photos or video footage. The bad news is that it’s a warranty repair, and needs to go back to Australia, which isn’t particularly easy to achieve right now. Then we found that WordPress.com, where transvecto is hosted, seems to be on a Kazakhstan block list… A blog site… think about the free speech ramifications of that… Anyway, we are back on air via the cheapest Netbook I could find and a nifty VPN service, and have a little catching up to do. First: Russia.
One of the symbols we’ve seen of Russia as we’ve travelled through is that of Mother Russia. Endowed with generous bosoms, flowing dress, and (somewhat usually for a mother figure) a gigantic sword, we came across a 78 meter tall statue (plus another 10 metres for the sword) in Volgograd. The statue, no doubt designed by Soviet beaureacrats to inspire strength, unity and pride in the citizens of the USSR, was impressive to say the least. But to us Mother Russia came to represent how almost every Russian we met treated us.
It all started right at day 1, at the Ukrainian/Russian border. We’d waited all day for the ferry, arriving around 10am, and finally boarding around 5.30pm. I’d popped the roof tent for a snooze, while Andres had befriended the lesbian couple in front of us, stunning them into submission with his Russian. They were lovely, and took him under their wing, dragging him along to the ticket office, and even making sure we’d locked Magda properly on the ferry.
On the other side, we arrived at the Russian border. The guards were everything you wanted a Russian border guard to be: Oversized caps, buttons so shiny they could blind, and guns that looked big enough to shoot a satellite out of orbit. We approached apprehensively, but we need not have worried. Like big friendly teddy bears, the first one who met us and realised we didn’t speak Russian fastened straight on to help us through the process. Translating the forms for Magda for us, and then guiding us around the various windows (immigration, customs, vehicle inspection, etc) he made the border crossing one of our easiest. Mother Russia was looking after us. In fact the only thing that made us slightly uneasy was the wry “good luck” that almost every officer would end their interaction with us with. Why did they keep saying that? Why did we need good luck? What did they know that we didn’t?
Our plan (and “plan” is a generous word for it) was to head north east across the Russian steppe to the Ural mountains, before turning south into Kazakhstan. Our route would take us through Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd, Saratov, Samara, Ufa, some time in the Urals, and then Chelyavinsk. We would spend much of our time on the road getting across the Russian Steppe to the Urals, and that’s reflected in the photos for this update, most come from Andres’ photos taken while on the move.
It has to be said, Russian city planners don’t place “pretty” near the top of their priority list. These were gritty cities, often built around industrial hearts, rather than the other way around. Outside the cities the farms were great fields, wide and long, separated by rows of super tall poplars and birches, which added to the feeling of size. We followed the Volga river north east, along slow highways filled with labouring trucks.
In Russia there are two types of road: intercity highways, and country roads. However the only difference between the two is the fact that all the trucks, cars, van, police and general chaos travel on the intercity highways. They are the same in size, lanes, and speed limit as country roads. Which means the country roads are far faster to travel on, except that they don’t go where you need them to. Meanwhile, the highways are everything you expect: slow trucks pouring out diesel fumes, tractors, regular police, and mad Russians overtaking where ever possible. I enjoy driving (obviously) and usually don’t find it tiring at all, but this was slow, hard driving, watching traffic, potholed roads and eager police.
We were pushing to get up into the Urals and do some hiking. After the success of our Austrian Alps hiking adventure, we thought we’d do it again in the Urals. And so we arrived into Zlatoust at 5:30 one afternoon and headed to the national park office. The staff were just packing up, but stayed to answer our questions (delivered via Google Translate as usual). After a while one of the ladies, “Julia” announced that there was no way we could find our own way to the national park, and that she would take us to a local hotel this evening, and then meet us tomorrow morning to take us to the park. We tried to protest, explaining that we were travelling half way across the planet, surely we could find the park, but Julia wasn’t having any of it.
Julia spoke enough German to be dangerous, as did Andres. Despite the fact I didn’t speak Russian or German, this didn’t stop Julia from lecturing me in both as we headed through town. Julia, firmly in charge by now, took us to a supermarket to pick up food for the next day, giggling incessantly as we tried to work out the Russian food. At the local hotel she took charge, inspecting the rooms with us, and keeping the parking guard honest. The next morning she was waiting in the lobby for us, and off we went to the park. On the way I mentioned that Russian people – herself included – were very friendly and helpful. “That’s because you both a very interesting” came the reply… Just what you want to hear from your mother.
Julia was lovely, writing out a note to the cabin wardens, and ensuring we were headed off in the right direction. We waved goodbye and headed off up the hill, enjoying the peace and quiet after all the chatter. But only an hour up the track we ran into Ilya and Ilya’s friend (whose name escapes me….luckily he doesn’t speak English so won’t read this). Two locals out for a day walk, Ilya spoke English and on hearing where we were walking announced they would walk with us, so that we didn’t get lost. Ahhh Mother Russia.
However it was great having local guides, and they pointed out landmarks of interest on the way. Ilya was a software engineer planning to move to New York and make his fortune in software development for social media, while Ilya’s friend…well it was difficult to be sure what Ilya’s friend did, apart from hike around the forest alot. They insisted that the next day they meet us back at the carpark and show us a beautiful local lake.
Meanwhile, we were going to be staying at the mountain hut that we had been hiking to. Back in Austria we had hiked all day and arrived at a beautiful log cabin, complete with long drinks menu and staff that cooked up hearty Austrian dishes for dinner. Upstairs had been a big dorm which we had had to ourselves. Keen to repeat the experience we arrived at the hut. It was there that the resemblance ended (the word “hut”).
The hut itself was more a squatter’s cottage. Half the building was wrapped in a canvas sign, which looked like it was once a beer advert. Scattered around the outside of the hut were half-opened cans of cat food and stew, with pots of dirty water sitting in the mud. Inside the cabin around a dozen cats and kittens were sprawled out luxuriously across the beds. The place stank of cats, food, body odour and damp. The hut warden, an old man with a voice that sounded like one of the Ents from Lord of the Rings told us (via Ilya) that there was a lady staying in the dorm upstairs with her child, but when she got back he would ask her to tidy up her mess.
Call me a princess but this wasn’t for me. Andres claimed he was fine but I don’t believe a word of it. We extracated ourselves from the Ent-like warden as politely as possible and headed back to the refuge of Magda, where we cooked up a storm on the stove and climbed into the cat free comfort of the roof tent (I love the roof tent).
We headed for Chelyavinsk as our last stop in Russia, having a day off there before heading to the Kazakhstan border. Again our experience of Russian border crossings didn’t come close to the doom and gloom of travel books and blogs. The guards were young and friendly, and again as soon as they spotted the foreign plates an Enlish speaking officer looked after us, tagging along to the passport queue and chatting away the whole time. He was super friendly, and had a great sense of humour We peppered him with questions on Altai and how the car papers worked, and he asked us about the trip and our visas, and how much they were. I replied that the Russian visa cost more than all the others combined.
“Ahhh” he said. “That’s because Russia the most beautiful.” We laughed our heads off…mostly with him…
As the paper work was finished up, our friend shook our hands, and motioned towards Kazakhstan. “Good luck” he said….