On the Russian roads

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The Narva river separates Estonia and Russia, in the city of the same name – Narva. Upon our arrival in this city, we checked-in for the flat we rent for the evening. We booked on the website www.goswift.eu a slot time to cross the Russian border on the following day. This administrative process reassured us. Indeed, it looked very organised giving us the hope of a fast border crossing.

At 9am, the time of our appointment, we arrived at the border post located at the bottom of the massive castle of the town-centre of Narva. Finally, it looked more complex than expected. We understood that we were actually supposed to be at 9am in a waiting area located outside of the city. Once we reached the huge parking of this zone, we filled some paperwork and joined one of the queues made of tens of vehicles. We waited half an hour for our plates to be shown on a massive screen.

We got a ticket and went back to the first border post, in the town-centre. We joined a new queue alongside the castle. Again, we waited about an hour. We took the opportunity for going on the ramparts to enjoy the view over the Narva river and Ivangorod, a Russian fortress on the opposite side.

We were moving slowly in the queue, until the traffic light specially put in front of the line showed a green light for us. We gave our passports and vehicle documents to the customs officer. He checked quickly and opened the barrier. We were out of the European Union.

We rode slowly on the bridge separating both countries and joined a new queue. At the end of the road, we saw the last checking point: the Russian border post. Someone gave us a form to fill. We were surprised as everything was written in Russian. Due to the complexity of their alphabet, we couldn’t guess the meaning of any words. We asked someone in the queue for some help. Finally, a customs officer gave us the same form but translated in English. Lucky us! It was much easier! After waiting some time, we had a quick check of the vehicles including the opening of our cases but with no further searches. No questions about our itinerary.

The border behind, we looked for an insurance policy in the small border city of Ivangorod. Sadly, we got the same replies in each insurance office: “Niet”! So we headed to Saint Petersburg, our next stage, with no insurance policy.  

Our first kilometres in Russia were identical to the ones made the previous day in Estonia. Except this time, we were not able to read the signs with the Cyrillic alphabet. Some birches on the side of the road. We crossed many villages with wooden houses next to tall buildings.

We shared the road with the most symbolic Russian vehicles: the Lada which is a basic car and the UAZ vans. We were going back to the Sovietic time when the Lada 2101, also named “Jigouli”, was everywhere in the cities in spite of being well-known for breaking down all the time ; while the Lada Niva 4×4 was crossing the taiga through muddy paths. The UAZ vans, also named “Bukhanka” (meaning “a loaf of bread”) due to its body shape, looked also coming from another century but was unbreakable. Its reputation was due to the numerous trips made through all the country in tough conditions.

Thirty kilometres before our arrival, a sign indicated the entry of the city. The road was getting wider, a 6-lane highway. The beginning of a crazy time with a lot of overtaking and sometimes with no safe distance. The traffic was heavier in the town-centre. We managed to arrive at the motorbike shop to collect tires we ordered. The city was impressive by its wide avenues, huge palaces and bridges spanning the Neva river.

We spent two days in Saint Petersburg for visiting and finding an insurance policy. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to find one due to the Bank Holiday, the 1st of May. So we continued our trip towards East without insurance and we left the second biggest city of the country.

We arrived in the Russian taiga. As expected, a forest with birches as far as we were able to see with some streams and rivers. The straight roads cross this forest. Wood is here a big industry. On the side of the roads, there were many piles of tree trunks offering a smooth smell of pine trees.

Kilometres after kilometres, there was a monotony on these straight roads going towards the infinity.

When we stopped on the road, people were very curious about seeing two Ural sidecars. Many people thought we were crazy. For them, these vehicles were only good for harvesting potatoes and not for travelling over thousands of kilometres.

We shared our daily life with the lorry drivers, but also all the ones being along the roads everyday: the sales representatives, the ambulance drivers, the policemen, the petrol pump attendants, the hotel employees and the café staff. In the roadside cafés, the menu of the day was written on a window or a slate, but in Russian. Each time we opened the door of one of these cafés, we had the impression to be in an old western movie. Everyone was looking at us, in silence. Like cowboys, we moved forward to reach the main desk. A lot of tension in the atmosphere, but after we said a couple of Russian words… there were only smiles and laughs! The language barrier made many incongruous situations. With our fingers we usually showed the name of the dishes we wanted, without knowing what we will get. For an appetizer, a soup or a hot dish and a dessert, we never paid more than 2€.

Once our stomachs being full, we were going back on the road. At the end of the afternoon, we usually stopped in a “motel-garage”. We got use to struggle with our vocabulary to have 4 beds for the night at the best price. All the strategies were good to get a lower price: two people in a single bed, or in the best case, a small room isolated at the opposite of the parking. After unloading the side-cars, the first questions were asked by the other guests. With many people, we shared advice, tips and good stories thanks to the Google Translate app.

In spite of the monotony of the road, making us a bit sleepy, we needed to be very careful about another issue of the country: the alcohol. On the road, we noticed many vehicles having trouble to go straight in spite of a clear and straight road.

It was 4pm when, after a last break, we went back on the road. A few minutes later, a Kia overtook Julien and Marie’s sidecar, and cut in front of them. Same thing with us. The lorry at the front started to overtake another lorry. The Kia car didn’t wait and tried to go through, between both lorries. The car ended in the ditch and rolled over twice. One of the lorries stopped on the emergency lane. We stopped behind him. We had a brief chat with the driver with a couple of English words: “Ok?” and “police”. He crossed the road to check on the Kia drivers. Before to reach them, the Kia driver started the engine and managed to go out of the ditch and stopped on the emergency lane. The driver and the passenger went outside of the car to check it. The front tire was flat. There were staggering and had a quick chat with the lorry driver while we were shocked to see all of this happening.

The lorry driver suggested to us to go back on the road and reassured us by saying he will wait the police and will testify.

At the end of the afternoon, we reached the city of Cherepovets. At dusk, on the way back to our place after dining, we saw a police car with flashing lights. Inside, a man with a survival blanket. Behind the police car, we recognised the damaged Kia car. The drunk driver managed to drive 90 kilometres after the accident, with a smashed roof before to be stopped by the police. This encouraged us to change our daily schedule and to avoid driving after 4pm.

With no troubles, after crossing the taiga, we reached the Ural mountains. Between Tchelibinsk and Oufa, the hills were sloping. A tough tile for our sidecars between the lorries. The temperature was getting lower and the first snowflakes arrived. Around Zlatoust, we reached the tip of a summit at 800 metres above the sea level, a true windstorm with snow. We stopped in a café place at the summit to warm up with a good “Solyanka” soup. A person next to our table preferred his flask of vodka.

When we were in South of America, we used to compare the fresh temperatures to the ones we will have in Russia. In the coldest days, we didn’t want to put all our winter clothing to reassured us, thinking we will need to go through worst in Russia. But when we were 4 000 metres above the sea level, in the Andes mountains, you can guess we didn’t have always a nice weather. We thought it will be worst in Russia. But usually, Russia doesn’t have great temperatures in May. The forecasts said between -5°C and +5°C. So after hundreds of kilometres, when we started to have a tough weather, we were almost excited. We wore many layers, like an onion, due to the freshness of the temperature. Underlayer, top, fleece jacket, winter jacket, rain coat and winter gloves: we were ready for the straight Russian roads!

But the showers, the snow and the hail became interminable. We lost the excitation of the first kilometres. The fingers were painful and our legs were like gone. Every little sunny spell were a bit of hope like the light at the end of a tunnel. Each service station became a corner of Heaven. We entered soaked to take the closest table to a radiator. The pins and needles in our fingers reacted to the hot coffee or tea…

We were prepared to make face to these difficulties and to avoid the same destiny as the Napoleonian troops. For this reason, we have chosen the month of May ; to avoid the crossing of the Ural Mountains with Siberian temperatures. But it was the hardest meteorological conditions we had since the beginning of the travel…

On the side of the temperatures, our second difficulty on the Russian roads was the hundreds kilometres with very bad asphalt conditions. A direct consequence of the wide temperature variations in this country. The sidecars and their passengers were shaken in every directions by the tough surface of the roads and its potholes, damaging our motorbikes and forcing us to happily fix them.

For the first mechanical stop, it was again the fixation of the seat, a large crack appeared and was fixed on the same day by Julien with a welding machine in a motel.

The second one, was during the first break of the day on our way to Perm. After around 100 km, we stopped at a Lukoil service station to fill our tank. Julien, by intuition after a portion of bad road, checked the frame of our sidecars. A new crack appeared on the fixation of the suspension on both sidecars. In front of this difficulty and the time to analyse the situation, we took a coffee at the station. Like usually, we were struggling to order but the waitresses was very nice. Marie went there again another time to ask if they know a good welder. She asked us to wait 10 minutes, without saying the reason…

10 minutes later, two men arrived with an old and tired van. After a few minutes of chat, we followed them and we went two kilometres back on the road to a motel where it was perfect for doing mechanics on a smooth concrete floor, surrounded by lorry drivers. To work on both sidecars at the same time, we used bricks to elevate and stabilise the bikes.

Once swinging arms were removed on both sidecars, Emilie and Julien went to Alexander’s workshop. He ground them to stop the crack, reinforced and welded them, a great job made by a professional. Once we asked the price for this work, he did a funny face before to smile and to say in English with his great Russian accent: “Present”. Another proof of the Russian generosity. After warmly thanking him, we needed two extra hours to reassemble back the bikes. We enjoyed a beer break with Alexander who came with his beautiful “Jigouli” nicely painted. Michael, the security guard joined us as well before to start his shift and to keep an eye on the sidecars during the night.

While we were approaching the Kazakh border, a last misadventure came to conclude our trip on the Russian roads. The previous day, we talked about it and it didn’t wish us luck. 40 kilometres after our departure from the town of Louriouzan, Marie and Julien were not visible anymore in our mirrors. Once it has been possible we parked on the side before to try to make a U-turn in the middle of this really busy road with a lot of trucks.

A few hundreds of metres further we saw them parked on the side. After a second U-turn, we parked near to them. It appeared to be the first flat tire of the trip, after 32 832 kilometres. From our departure, we had snow in the Ural Mountains. Buck luckily, the repair was done during a sunny spell. Very quickly the jack was out and the tire changed. It was done in less than 40 minutes. We left the side road to insert ourselves in the traffic. We shared the last kilometres leading to Kazakhstan with the Russian lorry drivers, Kazakhstan is the land of our next adventures…