Total Mileage: 7734
CV joint guards broken: 3
Police checks: 1
Ford garages visited: 4
Herb plants lost: 1
Language barrier misunderstandings: daily
- Vaalimaa – Finnish border crossing
- St Petersburg
- Nizhy Novgorod
- Tashanta – Mongolian border crossing
Twas the night before August as the sun began to set on a dodgy car park one kilometer from the Russian Finnish border. Triple checking our visas and documents ready for the crossing into Russia the next morning, we also gave Tina a good check to see if everything was in ship shape mechanical working order. And low and behold all was not well. Worryingly green sludgy grease was oozing from the front right wheel axel. From the aggressive spray pattern on the mud guard and thick globules dotted around the surrounding chassis it was evident this was quite bad and it had been going on for a while.
Checking in with chief oncall engineer Papa Hunt and our Ford Transit mechanics manual, we deduced the CV joint rubber guard, named a gator, had broken. My dad said that this didn’t have to be changed immediately, we could drive on but over time it would obviously put stress on the wheel axel, the grease would all go, and if a stone got in it, it was game over. To cut a few hours of thinking what to do short we rung our Ford roadside rescue people who sorted out a tow truck to come and fetch us and take us to a garage for it to be repaired before we entered Russia. By this point it was 10:30pm, all hope of us crossing in our 6am pre-booked border slot had evaporated.
The tow truck man, who remained nameless, said we were wise to get it fixed in Finland and not Russia as the Russians would surely mug us off, that St Petersburg was even more beautiful then Venice or Paris and that he was an ex professional Poker player. Himself and Ford had struck a deal that we would be taken to a local garage he knew, not a Ford one as we would have to wait eight days for an appointment, and that the next morning a mechanic would change the gator. All was going swimmingly.
As we pulled into what looked like a derelict business estate at 11:45pm, a man in shorts and flip flops ran in front of the truck and ushered us through the gates into one of the unlit yards. He had a quick chat with our Poker player while another man and lady in pyjamas arrived. Turned out we were in the wrong yard and he directed us down to the one at the other end of the road. Disused cars and empty buildings with smashed windows surrounded us. All seemed slightly suspicious as we were unloaded and driven into a garage and our poker player mate headed home, wishing us good luck. The pyjama clad lady explained that tomorrow at seven an employee would arrive to change the gator and we would be back on the road by 11am. She even offered us a tent to sleep in in their garden. We obviously wanted to stay with the van, especially as it seemed all a bit off the books, so they shut up the garage and we got some beauty sleep.
At 6:58am the next morning Tina was being jacked up by the man still in his flip flops and the other employee. By 7:41am she was back on the ground with a new gator. The procedure was a lot quicker and lot cheaper than my dad had suggested but we made no issue of this, the thought that we could be in Russia in a few hours was far more important. Our Finnish friends also wished us good luck and we made the trip back to Vaalimaa, queued up for customs and passport control and waited. The whole process was again far quicker, efficient, and friendlier than we had imagined, bar one angry old lady who aggressively pointed at us and mouthed what I can only imagine as aggressive Russian profanities as we held up the queue at customs due to form filling in confusion. But we eventually cleared, found an insurance broker to get Tina insured, and were thrown head first into the utter chaos and madness that is Russian driving.
The hard shoulder in Russia has a new definition, that of an unofficial lorry lane that lorries straddle whilst you try and squeeze past them whilst the same is happening in the other lane so you have to have the reflexes of a cat so you can dodge, swerve, and emergency break at the last moment. This then lead into central St Petersburg rush hour traffic so we could park at our hostel (necessary so our tourist visas could be registered) which all passed in a blur and somehow without a dent, scratch or crash.
Being pushed for time with visa validity and the vast expanse that is Russia, sadly this part of the trip meant we couldn’t meticulously explore the Hermitage museums or infiltrate the Kremlin at a leisurely pace. So we had a whistle stop tour of St Petersburg and Moscow, enough to know we definitely want to go back.
Whilst zooming down Putin’s highway connecting St Petersburg and Moscow it became clear there was a problem. Our beautiful new Finnish gator had come loose and the new CV joint grease was splattered everywhere again. Perhaps this explains the work time and price of the procedure but we shall never know. It seems the gator hadn’t been put on properly and the clip that was meant to be holding it on was fairly shoddy. Sleeves up and tools out we set about botch jobbing it to get us to a garage. After a while two sizeable Russian men in overalls wandered over and enquired about our demise. In best phrasebook Russian and charades later (Google translate was of no use, they didn’t have their glasses on) they had a look underneath, muttered to each other, and rolled their sleeves up too. They wanted Tina wedged on the curb, a jack was not needed, and the less portly of the two got under the joint with his work gloves on and with Harry’s help they made the botch clip. The portlier version gave me a nail brush to get the grease from out under my nails. As they settled back at their picnic bench to a flask of tea we managed to understand there was a garage 160km down the road at Lviv and without their help we may not have made it that far. Good karma is coming your way good Russian mechanic friends.
This would be the start of our wild goose chase around western Russia’s Ford garages. The first visit was concerning the above CV joint, a visit to the Moscow branch due to an alarming noise coming from the exhaust, and two other visits to Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan as the other gator had broken too. They all found it astonishing that we had driven all the way from England and were heading to Mongolia. They took us under their wing and made sure their beloved Ford Transit model could carry on. Mechanic manager Aleksandr from Moscow even did a fist pump of pride whilst whispering ‘Transit’ when we explained our trip. As we sat in the garage customer zones with the portrait of Henry Ford smiling down on us we knew Tina would make it through Russia.
From border to border it took us ten days, arriving a day earlier in Tashanta than we had planned. We had estimated it was 3250 miles in total so we had to average just under 300 miles a day to make sure we had time to drive through Mongolia and back through Russia to Ukraine. The roads were in far better condition than we had imagined; it seems they are on a mission to improve all roads at the moment and there was tarmac the whole way albeit for grooves made by the lorries thundering up and down the roads. This made overtaking fairly hair raising as you rocked between the grooves but at least we knew we were going in the right direction. King of the road in Russia is the lorry, whilst beaten up Ladas, 4x4s, and important looking Mercedes zip between them. Slightly worried about bears and savage mosquitoes we parked in the truck stops overnight instead of wild camping. Nestled between the lorries, we bedded down to drive the 300 mile stint the next day, knowing the truck stop guard dog would keep us safe.
Our mechanic pal Aleksandr from Moscow told us to ditch Google maps and use Navi which is what all Russians use. The maps are far more accurate and helpful when it comes to traffic jams, which we encountered a lot of. You can even send messages to other drivers telling them what the hold up is, or the local prostitutes use it to pick up customers in the traffic jams. Every rush hour someone will break down or be smashed into by an impatient car behind. We never witnessed it thankfully but we saw many burnt out, jack knifed, and toppled over lorries because of the sheer excess weight they pack on to them. The quality of their tires is never great and we saw a few explode whilst the verges are littered with shredded rubber. The verges are also strewn with roadside tombstones. You certainly have to keep on your toes when driving.
However, Navi took us some alternate routes due to traffic so we managed to see parts and scenes of Russia we were not expecting. The sheer open space actually makes you a bit dizzy. Fields of sunflowers and corn that literally go on to the horizon without hedges or fences, huge marsh and scrub land with cranes wading in the ponds, and mist lingering over the swamps at dusk. Local people sell foraged berries, herbs, mushrooms, and honey, home made sausages, and homegrown fruit and veg on the side of the road. Sadly we didn’t buy much though because of radiation warnings in certain areas. The forests are so big and so dark and I’m so happy we didn’t wild camp in them, who knows what lurks within. Gas and oil pipes and pylons run all the way across the land, like the roads, reassuring you that even if there is zero sign of human life around you, you can the hustle and bustle is not far off. In the more rural villages and towns gas pipes are suspended around the perimeter of the pavements with outlets running to every building, some even have their own nodding donkey oil pumps. We arrived in Kazan at night, guided the way by the smell of burning oil and tall towers with flames coming out the top of them. Often we passed piles and piles of upturned earth in what you can only assume is a mine on the other side of it. The further we drove away from Moscow and into Siberia the more remote it became, with mirages shimmering over the freshly laid tarmac.
Random Police checks are a thing in Russia and we were stopped once, in a very red neck looking town outside Kazan. As the officer slowly wandered over to us we got all our documents and passports ready for checks, perhaps some money to even bribe him. However, he found it quite amusing we were English and replied ‘school again’ as we began our conversation. He didn’t give a monkeys about our paperwork but cackled at our names and the fact our van was our ‘house’. He asked Harry if he found my nose ring ‘sexy’ and was more interested in our sweet collection than papers. He came round to Harry’s passenger window to inspect the wrappers and made a very funny impression of someone injecting themselves as he gurgled ‘narcotics’ then gave another cackle. As Harry offered him an Altoid mint he accepted happily and gave one to his mate, then waved us off. All thoughts of having to bribe him seemed stupid now.
As we drove along the Chotsky Trakt, the road between Novosibirsk and the Mongolian border that leads on into China, we finally saw mountains again, the first since we left Norway. This was a welcome sight after miles and miles of flat never-ending earth. Again, the further we drove into the Altai Province the more remote and desert like it became. We began to see gers, the Mongolian word for yurt, instead of the three window fronted wooden houses with tin roofs we were used to. Goats and horses were bumbling along beside the road and eagles soared around the hills. After we had climbed to 6500ft the road began to level out again and a huge storm seemed to be brewing on the horizon. Luckily we seemed to be chasing the end of it as it disappeared over the border into Mongolia. We arrived at the barbed wire fence at 6pm, just as the border shut but a very kind English speaking Russian guard told us to wait in the queue and we would be first through the border at 9am the next day. Two Italian cars, a Fiat Panda doing the Mongol rally and a Land Cruiser who seemed to be doing the same thing as us queued up behind. It was a welcome sight after so long of feeling the odd European ones out. The family in the Land Cruiser gave us a bottle of wine to save them a space in the queue as they drove down the road to park at the hotel for the night, and we all waited for 9am.
We awoke to a Kazakh car that had queue barged the 300 metres and was parked in front us of. The kind Russian guard was having none of this and sent them right to the back, so us, the two Italian cars and a lorry were the first through. We had heard nightmare stories of all Russian border check points with the guards taking things, asking for bribes, and generally being aggressive. The Tashanta guards however were in extremely high spirits, joking that the Russian herbal tea we had bought on the side of the road was weed, then actually saying it was pretty vile tea (which it was), found the van extraordinary and were interested in our route and various equipment we had stowed in the back. We were into the no man’s land stretch in an hour and as we reached the official border the beautiful tarmac vanished and huge puddles from the storm the day before and rocks replaced it. For the past few days a number of Russians we had spoken to had wished us luck as we explained we were driving into Mongolia. Harry had taken this as a bit of a warning, I thought it was just a general passing comment to wish us well on our journey. But from the site of the road that lead to the next border check point, it seemed we were going to really need that luck over the next few days and 1250 miles.