Crossing the Divide
Hotel Tourist, Ufa, Bashkortostan Autonomous Republic, Russia
After four days off the road the traveling trio once again hit the tarmac yesterday morning to head for Ufa…and Europe. Under a leaden sky we loaded up a sodden Ting Tong and headed out of Yekaterinburg, Jo driving with Oleg in the back, and me with Rudy, filming our soggy exit from the city. We never even meant to go to Yekaterinburg, let alone to stay there for four days, but as Ivan, quoting Voltaire, said ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I don’t go for the full Celestine Prophecy version of nothing being coincidence, everything being some part of a pre-destined design, but I do subscribe to the attitude that many occurrences in our lives are more than simply an accident, and Yekaterinburg was a classic example. Jo and I went on a whim, deciding it sounded interesting and worth the 300 km northern diversion, and thanks to that whim we ended up meeting Ivan, Rudy and Oleg, all extremely lovely people, who did everything they could to help us and show us round their city. As we said goodbye to Ivan he said it was his dream to come to England, ‘To see Stratford-upon-Avon, and to perform the Tempest. But first I must be wise, for for a man to perform thees play, I think he must be wise’. Ivan, with his passion for Shakespeare, Voltaire and Irish Folk Music, is already wise, and it was a joy to meet such an unusual, intelligent person in the midst of a city we never intended to visit.
10 km’s outside of Yekaterinburg we came to the Europe / Asia border, where we parked up, took some snaps, and contemplated what had been before and what lies ahead. As I stood with one leg in each continent I thought of all the places and faces we have seen, all the extraordinary experiences we’ve had, and wondered what the next leg of Tuk to the Road held in store for us. I wondered how you can just draw a line and say that right there one world ends and another begins. Moreover, the Russia we have experienced has rarely felt even faintly Asian. The last time I felt we were truly in Asia was at Saryam Lake in China, amongst the nomads and yurts. Since then that Asian sense of otherness has faded, each day seeming more and more familiar, more European. But then again Russia doesn’t feel quite like the Europe most of us know, there’s an edge to it you don’t get in the Bois de Bouloigne, plus a hell of a lot more hookers and hummers. But it feels a very long way from NW China, where only a month ago we were sweltering in 40 degrees heat.
After our first lunch in Europe we said a sad goodbye to Rudy and Oleg and set off in the general direction of Ufa, not really sure of where we would end up that night. There was no direct road so after studying the Russian Atlas we decided to go the scenic route, dropping down through the Middle Urals and into the Bashkortostan Republic. Aside from the incessant rain, which we all have a strong aversion to, and the almost as incessant police checks, we had an uneventful drive through beautiful country. Not since China have we driven through such natural beauty. The road plunged, weaved and climbed through rolling green countryside, populated by Silver Birch copses, herds of grazing animals and an abundance of wild flowers. Freshly cut piles of hay dotted the fields and farm workers laboured with scythes, looking up in astonishment as we drove past. Occasionally we passed through a village of wooden houses, all with ornate, brightly coloured windows. Beautiful.
Five police stops later, at 8 pm, we came across a hotel and decided to call it a day, where I left Jo with TT and dived in to check it out. After the corpulent receptionist had finished getting her oversize knickers in a twist about the fact that firstly we were ‘inostranka’ (foreingers) and secondly had a curious vehicle that was ‘nyet motorcycle and nyet mashina’, we were allowed in. Twenty minutes and one beer later, Jo and I had acquired our next pair of Russian boyfriends, Roma and Zanil, both from Tyumen in Siberia. As we have both said before, Russians are wonderfully friendly people, sometimes the men a little over so, and its hard to sit anywhere for five minutes without being accosted by a potential suitor. Before long a third, slightly inebriated gentleman had come over to our table and was declaring undying love for Jo. It was 1 a.m before we finally got to bed.
This morning we set off, again in the rain, for the last 170 km to Ufa, capital of the autonomous Bashkortostan republic, home to the Muslim Turkic Bashkir people. We met our first Baskhir, Zoofar, last night, whom very kindly asked us to his sanatorium ‘bezplatno’ (free) - a kind of Russian shrublands. Although the idea of being pampered in the mountains for one day was very appealing, we opted to hit the road and head south west in search of the sunshine. Having spent the last week getting cold and wet every day we’re craving some heat, and have decided to re-route south along the Black Sea Coast via Odessa for a few days of sun, sea and surf.
This afternoon was spent tukking along a spectacular road across the heart of the Urals. Trucks loaded with German cars bound for Kazakhstan clanked past us and a constant line of bored looking babushkas hawked honey by the roadside. Although honey isn’t the most practical thing to travel with, we couldn’t resist and pulled over by the most needy looking babushka we could find to make a purchase. A Kazakh lorry was parked 20 metres away and I had a quick chat with the driver, who told me he drives back and forwards between Germany and Kazakhstan, 7000 km’s in 10 days. Poor man, I don’t envy his job.
As we turned Ting Tong onto the road a lady selling berries next door ran after us and pushed a large jar of raspberries into my hands, wishing us a good journey. A small gesture that is typical of the kindness of the Russians.
Its midnight now so time to go to bed…but one last anecdote before lights off. As we arrived at our hotel this evening a stumbling, red faced group of army officers lurched out of the adjacent bar. One of them, toad faced, middle aged more than a little tipsy, locked his eyes lasciviously on Jo and planted a lingering, sloppy kiss on her cheek. By the time I had got us a room five minutes later Jo had been fully groped, kissed repeatedly and proposed to. Evoking our imaginary husbands was no use at all and Jo and I had to dash into the hotel under the cover of our baggage to avoid further gropage. At this rate we could have multiple husbands by the time we leave Russia, should we wish. What a thought.
Bedtime now…Samara tomorrow….xx Ants