From Russia with love
I know, the title is a terrible cliche, but sometimes cliches are hard to resist - and Jo and I were so relieved to make it into Russia late on Monday night it was love at first sight.
On Monday morning, after a rocky 200km drive from Kostanai in NW Kazakhstan, we tukked up to the Russian border at Troitsk, 200km south of Chelyabinsk. We had every reason to be a little nervous since our Kazkakh visa had expired four days previously. Earthquakes, mechanical problems and bad roads meant that we'd been unbale to keep to the tight two week visa issued to us three months ago in the UK..and its almost impossible to extend tourist visas in Kazakhstan. So we were just going to have to smile angelically and hope the guards were in a good mood.
Things started well. In the shadow of three colossal factory chimneys belching black smoke across the plains, we pulled up at the back of a small queue of (mainly) Ladas. Jo insisted we behaved well and didn't do our usual habit of queue-barging since, as she said, we didn't 'want to draw any attention to ourselves'. Considering the nature of our vehicle I thought this was fairly impossible, but complied anyway. Fistful of documents in hand, I walked into the small wooden hut by the barrier where a woman with scarily dyed red hair was busily stamping documents and a man was snoring noisily in the corner. A faint whiff of vodka hung in the air. Ten minutes later I was gone, clutching more documents and feeling very relieved that she hadn't noticed the little problem of our invalid visa. It seemed that all we had to do know was wait until, car by car, we were let through the barrier to passport control.
Three hours later we were through to the next stage, where Jo and TT waited while I went to meet our fate at passport control. A surly looking man said 'zdrasvitzye' through the small window and took our passports, while I gave him my most winning smile. It didn't work. Within a nanosecond the window was abruptly slammed shut and the man disappeared into another building across the road. We were in trouble. Two minutes later he and another guard reappeared and summoned me into a small, drear room where a number of officials came in and questioned me about why we were late exiting the country. I gulped as one of them told me glumly that we had a 'bolshoi problem' and would have to go back to Astana to validate our visas. Considering it had taken us over two days of hellish driving to get from the capital this was a most unappealing option.
Yet once again the Gods were on our side. No one it seems can resist the charms of Ting Tong and I was soon told that we could go...not even a fine. Unbelievable. Here we were in Kazakhstan, a country notorious for corrupt officials dying to extract dollars from all and sundry, we had every reason to be fined and beaten, and we were about to sail through to Russia without even a telling off. As we were leaving the hut we saw the other side of the coin however. Three Turkish men were engaged in heated conversation with the same group of officials who had been so lenient with us. The youngest of the Turks came and spoke to us, furious that they were being forced to pay money for no reason. They'd driven from Ankara to here, and no where else had they experienced problems. I guess we were very, very lucky indeed.
It was 5.30 pm by the time we tukked across the border, waving goodbye to Kazakhstan and hello to Russia. Only Ladas, barriers and wooden huts stood between us and the biggest country in the world. Once again I took our documents and headed for the barrier hut where I was greeted by Anatoly Konstanteenovich Lookanov, the lone guard on duty. His green eyes were full of mirth as he looked through the documents, asked about the journey and tried to decipher TT's Thai registration documents. So fascinated was he by the sight of this rare Thai species that he left the confines of his hut and came for a closer inspection, joining the gold-toothed crowd that had gathered in my absence, and creasing with laughter at TT's three-wheels and hot pink paintwork.
More waiting.... for another three hours we sat in the queue, making friends with everyone, letting all the children have a TT experience, letting people take pics...until finally the barriers opened and the whole queue of cars was ushered through to passport control. The end was in sight - and within 10 minutes we had all the right stamps and were heading for the door. Until we remembered the small matters of insurance for Ting Tong and the dreaded 'deklaratzia'. Insurance was easy enough, once the bleached blonde assistant had got over the shock of the Thai papers, but the deklaratzia took us an agonising extra two hours to finalise. In short, a deklaratzia is a vital piece of paper for anyone coming into Russia. If you don't fill it in correctly and get all the right stamps, you are liable to get all your money and equipment confiscated when you leave. This would have meant losing cameras, laptops, BGAN's etc etc - not an option. As Dimi, the 26 year old guard, was filling out our deklaratzia for the eighth time I asked him if many English people came through this border. He screwed up his face and thought hard, "In May we have a Holland, and in February we have two Australians, I can't rememeber Eenglish here". No wonder it was all taking so long.
At last, at 10.30 pm, in the dwindling light, we walked out to TT and into Russia. Five or six guards came over to ask questions and send us on our way, and ask casually if we had any drugs on us. After drawing us a map to a hotel in Troitsk, the nearest town, we were off. What relief, what a day.
But it wasn't over yet.
In Troitsk, 30 km from the border, we drew up outside the aforementioned hotel, a grandiose mansion in the early stages of decrepitude. The receptionist shook her head, they were full. Yeah right I thought, a huge hotel like this full on a Monday night. We'd heard that some Russian hotels can be unwilling to take foreigners, a hangover from the Soviet era, and I am sure it was this unwillingness rather than a genuine lack of rooms that was the reason we were turned away. The same thing happened at the second hotel and Jo and I started to wonder if we might have to pitch our tent on the pavement. But thank goodness hotel number three, the 'Gostiniza Kaspi' said yes, they had one room left. Phew.
At 11.45 pm, tired, grubby and much in need of tipple and tiffin, we sat down for supper in the hotel restaurant. Our only fellow diners were three very drunk men in one corner, and a pair of heavily made up, fairly drunk 30 something women in another corner. It wasn't long before we were spotted by the former, and subsequently accosted, whilst a DJ appeared out of nowhere and put on hideous, earsplittingly loud eurotechno. Having successfully used having supper as an excuse not to join our prospective paramours - Mikhail, Dimitri and Alexei, they retreated to the dancefloor and began throwing some serious shapes and blowing kisses in our direction. Very funny. They soon returned however, to propose that they be our boyfriends in Russia - despite the fact they all had wedding rings on and Jo and I both said we were married. We've been warned this might happen a bit here...
At 2 a.m we crashed into bed, elated to be in Russia and looking forward to the next stage of the adventure.
Tuesday 25th July
The next morning I awoke early and left Jo snoring in bed to go and investigate the local market. We'd been so paralysingly cold in the last few days I wanted to find us some warm clothes so we wouldn't have to drive in our sleeping bags.
Two hours later I returned not with any warm clothes, but with a baby hedgehog, called Henry. I'd found Henry in the market, being sold by two mischievious little boys who'd caught the unfortunate beast the day before. Henry looked very unhappy in his little box, being prodded by passers by, so the only solution was to rescue him and think about what to do with him later. He was SO sweet, with beatly black eyes and a long twitchy nose, it was tempting to secrete him in TT, give him some goggles and bring him back to England with us. But of course this wasn't possible and two hours later we released him in a silver birch copse in the middle of some farmland, where he scuttled off into the undergrowth without even a wave goodbye.
Our destination that day was Yekaterinburg, about 400 km north west of Troitsk. The roads were good and we banked on being there in time for supper. But at 3 pm the heaven's opened. Anuwat warned us to be careful in the rain and that Ting Tong's spark plugs wouldn't be happy if they got wet, but we'd always been OK before and we carried on driving through the rain at a sedate 40 km/h. Anuwat's wise words soon became reality and TT began to splutter in an unseemly manner. It wasn't until 11 pm that we finally made it here, to Yekaterinburg, having crawled along in the rain at 40 km/h for the last 150 km's with TT choking and backfiring.
We've only been in Yekaterinburg for 36 hours and once again Jo and I have been overwhelmed by the kindess of strangers. Whilst fruitlessly searching for our hotel late on Tuesday night we met Ivan, a local radio presenter who speaks very good English. Without him we would never have found the 'Gostiniza Academia Geologia', tucked away on a dark side street behind Prospekta Lenina. Nor would we have found a safe place to park our three-wheeled friend. Ivan, a philosophical, highly intelligent 31 year old, was fascinated with our trip and went home and posted all about it on a website read by people here. Amongst those who read the sight were two 21 year old boys, Oleg and Vadim, who, with nothing else better to do, decided to go and search for the 'tuk tuk girls'. So here we were, in a random little internet cafe yesterday evening, when two (very handsome indeed) boys came over and said "Are you the two drving the pink car to England?". By total chance they had come to this cafe to use the internet and track us down, and here we were. Extraordinary -Yekatinburg is a big city with 1.4 million inhabitants and they had stumbled opon us by total chance. Even funnier was when they showed us the website Ivan had posted on, with a long thread all about the funny pink car that had been spotted last night coming into the city. Oleg and Vadim knew exactly where we had been, where we had got lost, where we had parked to ask directions...just from the replies to Ivan's posting.
Thismorning Jo has gone off to get TT seen with Ivan, Oleg and Randy, by a mechanic found by Ivan through his posting, and I've gone off to take our DV camera to the Sony service centre and do internet chores. The little bugger (excuse my language) has an audio problem which might not be fixable. I don't even want to think about it and I begged to engineer at the centre to to his very best to sort it out.
This afternoon we're going to check out some of the city and go and see the Bloodhound Gang with Oleg and Vadim tonight. I have no idea who they are, but Jo and the boys seem very excited and assure me they are some hot American group. Jo described them as the music the US troops in Iraq like to drive their tanks around to - sounds grrreat.
Ever since learning Russian at school its somwhere I have always wanted to go and I am really excited to be here. My Russian teacher, Mrs Ainsworth (she'd married an Englishman hence the surname), seemed determined to paint as bad a picture as possible about her homeland to her three pupils, and delighted in showing us videos about the Aral Sea, Chernobyl and glue-sniffing kids in Moscow. But then it was the early 90's when Russia was painfully emerging from the mantle of Sovietism and the fistfuls of roubles Mrs Ainsworth would show us in class wouldn't even buy a loaf of stale bread. But the gargantuan size of Russia and its epic history has always fascinated me and I think it will be one of the highlights of the trip. The driving is a bit hairy, but then so was it in China and Kazakhstan. By the time Jo and I get back to England we'll probably have caught a host of bad road habits.
That's enough for now I think - sorry its so long but we just havn't had a chance to post in the last few days and so much has happened I didn't want to miss anything out. Apologies also to all those who have sent me lovely emails over the last few weeks who I haven't yet replied to - Alice S, Jemila, Charlie, Lara G... thank you so much and I will reply when we have a moment. Love to everyone in England and send some sunshine our way xx Ants