The Russian leg of our tour has been at the forefront of my mind for a while and for various reasons:
Reason one: Russia marks the beginning of truly foreign territory for both of us. Neither of us have been before, and even through 30% of Russia (the parts that we will pass through) is classed as European – it is certainly very different to the countries that we are leaving behind.
Reason two: Personal safety. We have been advised by several people that Russians don’t take very well to foreigners of certain skin tones (Just 3% of the Russian population are foreigners) , nor disabled people. SHIT! According to one source there are 60,000 skin-heads living in Moscow alone.
Reason three: Our first actual border crossing. If crossing a border into Russia is as difficult/awkward as obtaining an Automobile Tourist Visa we had our work cut out for us.
So – I am writing this post on our 7th day in Russia. Needless to say, we got through the border crossing!
Starting at the beginning – we charged through Latvia to the Zastino Border and stopped a few km shy of the crossing to do a once-over of the vehicle. I have read numerous times that the Russian coppers will fine you for a dirty vehicle, particularly a dirty license plate. I washed the Troopy down diligently, Jerome had a shave and I popped on some presentable clothes.
My heart was skipping beats as we pulled up to the border crossing at 4pm on 1st July. We had learnt some basic Russian words en-route to the crossing (hello, bye, thank you, no, yes, I don’t understand etc..) but we both felt the weight of our next undertaking. The Troopy is fully loaded with stuff and we were both prepared to totally unpack and re-pack for their searching purposes.
To sum the crossing up – it was a relative breeze! There were about five posts to pass before hitting Russia and the whole process took just 2 hours. The officers took all of our prepared documents and found them all to be in order. All of our hard work and organisation paid off PERFECTLY. Customs took one look at our vehicle and I guess that they decided it was too much of a shit-fight to search it! I was asked to open the tailgate and the twin drawers. Apart from popping the hood to check the VIN on the chassis, that was the extent of their search. We were chuffed, to say the least.
The first thing that I noticed was that if you made the effort to greet the Russians in their own language things go smoother (understandably). Even if they can speak English they will generally refuse to speak to you in anything but Russian. I really respect this. The Russians are intensely proud of their language, arts and culture. So, when in Russia…..
So back to the trip. We emerged from the border into Russia with huge grins on our faces. That moment felt so sweet, but I was very worried about what may come. Would we be the target of Racism, judgment and bribery? Would we be safe enough? My heart really did feel heavy that evening. We smashed about 300 out of the 670km to Moscow and pulled off the road to camp for the night. (By the way, camping is not that widespread in Russia but you are allowed to camp anywhere except for private property or restricted areas).
The next day we hit Moscow and treated ourselves to an overpriced (very average) room at the Holiday Inn in Moscow centre. Moscow is expensive! In fact, it is one of the most expensive cities to live in and visit in the world. The rich/poor divide is vast and obvious. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, along with communism. Pockets of un-governed capitalism took over as many state owned sectors were privatised and shares sold at a pittance, causing hyper-inflation. The oil business boomed and corrupt, dangerous billionaires took root in Moscow before current better legislation came into force, courtesy of Putin. Nowadays, Muscovites (bar the billionaires) earn over twice as much as the rest of the Russian population. Outside of Moscow the average monthly earnings are less than AUD$200.
We quickly decided that Jerome would do the Moscow driving as the Russians are CRAZY CRAZY drivers there! Suicide lanes and every man for themselves seemed to be the ethos.
My preconceptions about Russians have had to be totally re-adjusted. If greeted appropriately (and reasonable efforts are made to speak some Russian) they are helpful and friendly. There was a good spread of skin tones in Moscow which really did allay some of my deepest fears. Some of these people were tourists but a good proportion were residing there and had clearly been living there a long time. I suppose our experience in the countryside may be different but for now I was starting to relax and to enjoy Russia.
The architecture of Moscow really is incredible. From the red-brick buildings to St Basils, Red Square and Stalins high-rises; there was an overload of food for the eyes.
Every city in Russia has a Kremlin (a fortress), originally built to protect and serve the cities within. Moscows’ Kremlin is probably the most famous as it also houses the government headquarters, frequented by Putin (In-between his bareback, shirtless horse-riding escapades…)
We took a free tour of the city centre and the next day went back in to explore the Kremlin from the inside. One thing worth noting: Russians do not do disabled access. Or disabled loos. In fact, just three of the public buildings in Moscow are fully wheelchair accessible. Jerome was not able to get into a single one of Moscow’s museums or cathedrals. Luckily the area in and around Red Square, St. Basils and the Kremlin is step-free.
We had to stop at the famous GUM shopping complex on Red Square to use the loo. The toilets were on the third floor (not disabled friendly, mind) so I asked a staff member where Jerome could get up there. The guy pointed to an escalator, which for Jerome is fine. I hung back waiting. 15 minutes later I could hear him whistling for me from the third floor……. turns out the escalators only go one way: up! I approached the same guy again asking how Jerome could get down and he just shrugged and walked off. Nice!
You have to use the underpass to cross Moscow roads unless you have a death wish (6 lane each-way roads!). Most underpasses were full of steps but a few had what I would call death ramps: normal steps with strips of metal placed on top, too narrow to actually get your wheels onto. That is the extent of accessible Moscow 😉 The underground Metro is in parts, heritage listed with amazing architecture but all bar two stations had staircases for entry. The two that you could get into are brand new and not worth looking at.
Moscow itself is huge and sprawling. There’s not much litter and parking is a literal free for all. Want to park in the middle of a 6 lane ring road? No problem! Just pop your hazards on and sit there. That’s just how they do it. RED HOT.
The gold onion-domed buildings are beautifully gleaming and there is a constant stream of trucks spraying water on the roads to keep dust down. Despite their efforts (and the numerous underground car washes) most cars are covered in grime. The dirty number plate rule is clearly not followed, in fact you can play a game of ‘spot the number plate’. The cars (even the really expensive ones) are bashed to buggery and the rich men in fast cars fang around the city like there’s no tomorrow.
Food wise – there’s a great selection. It’s pretty much the same pricing as Sydney or London but it wasn’t too bad as the food was always decent. I tried Pelmeni, which is a sort of steamed dumpling containing meat (beef) served in a hot broth with what I think is a dark, Baltic rye bread. It’s really cheap and very tasty.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn with a standard room (disability friendly actually) for two nights with no breakfast and parking for an eye-watering AUD$700!! For our last two nights in Moscow we stayed in a city camp. It was pretty ghetto but we had the chance to shower and do laundry so meh…. The young guy who ran the place taught me a few extra Russian words and even hung out our laundry for us early on a Sunday morning before we had woken up!
We also met a group of three Italian chaps who were en-route home after 10 months on the road touring China, Mongolia and some of the Stans’. They want us to come stay with them when we hit Italy so another great contact. They also gave us a bit of advice on what to expect in Central Asia. For example in Kazakstan the roads are abysmal and the cops are particularly corrupt. In Uzbekistan diesel is very rare (they reckon they traveled 1000km before finding fuel once) and only available on the black market. Even the trucks there run on gas. All invaluable information for us.
We wrapped up Moscow with a visit to the Fallen Monuments statue park; which Jerome had researched online. It wasn’t in the Brandt or Lonely Planet guides to Moscow so we thought it might not be so good. Turns out it was fantastic.
The park sits right on the river overlooking the city.
The statues housed there were originally all communist statues that had been taken down from around the city after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The park had obviously been expanded to include other statues and pieces of art with more pieces being added daily. That place is definitely worth a visit; it was particularly great on a hot summery day at about 30 degrees.