September 24th- October 7th
Getting out of Ulanbaataar was where it first went wrong, going an hour North, only to find out the road turned into another non-existent road. Back on track and on the main road heading towards Ulan Ude, we were met with the usual patches of offloading we’ve become so familiar with. Just short of an hour or so to the border we decided to call it suits for the night and camp as it was dusk.
We set up camp just off the main road, in between to ger families. As expected they all came to inquire, so we traded cigarettes and jerky for a bag of hard goat’s cheese. We tried to say no, but they wouldn’t have it. Great, now we were stuck with nasty-ass cheese that we concisely couldn’t throw away. As expected, we froze that night and actually woke late, as we had buried our heads in our sleeping bags, trying to keep warm, thus not seeing the sunrise.
The Mongolian/Russian border practically killed us, waiting over 6 hours. It was mainly the Mongolian side that was so damn slack and worse, for no reason at all. It wasn’t very busy, they were just so inefficient. With most of our day shot we had to sleep in the one city we didn’t want to stay in, Ulan Ude. The nightmare returned, but even worse now, as we realized we actually knew how to get around and didn’t need the map. Like before, the room rates were ridiculously high, even for a few hours sleep at the train station was close to $80! Though more expensive than our former hotel, we decided to spite them and stay at another just across the parking lot for an extra $15. (We couldn’t stay at the same hole of a hotel we stayed last time). To top things off, we had a overpriced, disappointing dinner at Modern Nomads, which in UB had been so good. Ulan Ude got us again!!!!!!
The drive along Lake Baikal, though pretty as it was with the autumn colours, etc was slower than expected and the outside temperature was a steady 6c with white caps on the lake. So much for going swimming…! We did however finally celebrate Bugzilla’s 20,000th kilometre lakeside with our Austrian cake-in-a-can from Subaru Salzberg. So there after the inevitable happened-snow! Awesome, Sept 27th and we got flurries…. We managed to find a roadside motel around 8pm run by two grump-ass women that refused to smile. After seeing the room, without windows in some Siberian town full of gas stations we understood why they were so down in the dumps.
Up at 6am and on the road for 630am. Hell the sun didn’t rise till 8am. 999km was the goal today, making it to Krasnoyarsk. Over more flurries, icy roads, dirt roads and passing a lot of trucks we made it, all before dark to boot! The hotel we got downtown must have been an old convent or something as the showers for the whole building (5 stories tall) were group showers in the basement. Creepy! The next day was another long one, near 1000km. By dusk we gave in at some roadside wooden chalet-like place with a lot of poor taxidermy aligning the walls. Up well before the sun rose, over 14.5hrs we travelled 1124km, making it to the town of Kurgan well past sunset. It was a brutally long and frustrating day as we got caught in construction traffic throughout.
Our food options have been limited, as most places are written in Russian and don’t come with pictures. However after numerous occasions we’ve mastered a few items/words. Same with ordering gas, as you pay before you pump. So guessing the amount of litres required and communicating that is a simple routine now for Jess, sometimes met begrudgingly, sometimes with laughter.
One bonus about covering so many kilometres each day, was were would travel back in time through timezones, thus gaining an extra hour of driving time each timezone we crossed.
With just over 2000km to go to get to Moscow, we really pushed extra hard to get to Kazan, a 1200+km drive. However due to the construction and the number of trucks on single lane highways we were cut short by 100km when Corinne had to give in for the night at the first place see saw. What was weird about the timezone crossing today was we went behind by 2hrs instead of the normal one hour. Must be a Russian thing….
The extra sleep didn’t have much effect on us, except we were on the road earlier and met with constant rain. What is it with rain that just makes you wanna go back to bed…? Upon arriving in Kazan it was a downpour-so much for sightseeing! Instead we hit up the local mall and grocery shopped, testing out mystery dough pockets filled with questionable items. Back on the road, and only 600km to go till Moscow! Well that 600km, turned out to be the longest 600km to date. More construction on single lane roads with even more trucks! By 5pm we knew we weren’t gonna make it to Moscow today. Longest drive ever!
The last ten kilometres were the longest ten kilometres-over an hour in Moscow traffic. It felt like it would never end. But when it did we were right outside of our hostel with a parking spot. Score! The street parking rules are a bit odd. We were told to simply cover our license plate and we’d have no problem parking on the street. To our amusement we noticed many other cars were using the suggested method, so when in Moscow, follow the locals, cover your plate and have free parking!
Walking into the Red Square was quite something. Having seen the square in news reports over the years we would have never guessed it was so big with four very opposite sides. The security at the Lenin mausoleum was over the top; guards everywhere, even in the dark corners of where he sleeps!
To mark our accomplishment of driving over 6000km to get to Moscow we talked ourselves into a deserving banya experience, the most luxurious in Moscow at the famous Sanduny Baths. From to steam room to splashes of ice cold water, back and forth, hot and cold. After seeing the whacking of the oak leaves on someone in the stream room, we decided to go balls out and sign up the same. After 10min of an intense oak leaf beating with leaves flying everywhere we were ‘awoken’ from the steam with massive buckets of lukewarm & frigid water poured over us. LOVED IT! A definite highlight.
Our next adventure was to tackle the world’s largest subway system. Upon suggestion we rode the ‘circle line’ getting off then on at each station. Kinda like a hop on, hop off bus tour. Each station was remarkably unique depicting typical scenes in Russian life, Lenin (of course!), history, military heroes, etc. Every station was like a museum or art gallery with chandeliers to boot! Hell, the subway even offered free wifi on its trains. Though difficult to figure out stations, due to the cyrillic writing, the Moscow Metro is a must see and puts our local subway system back home to shame.
Our final night, we had the pleasure of going out with Sergi & Svetlana, family of our dear friend Elena back home. Through many hand gestures and google translate, we got the inside scoop on Moscow and Russia in general. Plus we got escorted to the 25m metallic man and woman carrying a hammer and sickle.
As expected the drive to St. Petersburg was long and painful with many trucks and traffic. We gave in with only 100km to go in the small town of Veliky Novgorod. Traveling Russia at this time of year, despite to cool temperatures is very beautiful with the leaves changing colours and simply the amount of trees.
WOW St. Petersburg! The bridges, the canals and the architecture! Immediately both Corinne and I knew we preferred this over Moscow. People seemed to have bounce in their step and actual genuine smiles. Besides countless hours of wandering the streets and getting a true feel for the city over a couple days, we took in a few musts: the renowned Hermitage was breathtaking with its maze like interior and variety of art. The Winter Palace and Square in itself was grand; St. Issac’s Cathedral, now a museum was massive and featured one of the largest mosaics, which we’re both fascinated by; and the Saviour of Spilled Blood church was like a a mini St. Basil’s. we also made the discovery that craft beer in Russia is available, but only for those that seek it out. Twice we went to a bar, aptly named ‘Craft’ to sample and savour good beer (at last!)
To our surprise the 210km drive to the Finnish border was smooth. Getting out of St. Petersburg actually had a proper paid, modern highway. And the rest of the way was scenically full of pine and birch trees. This was most definitely a good way to go out on a happy note from Russia. The drive from the Mongolian border, just 12 days earlier and over 7000km started to feel like is was long past. Goodbye Russia, you’ve been large and in charge for too long now, its time to get back to the alphabet we know…Finland its all on you now!
And for those wandering, no we don’t suggest driving back from Mongolia unless you’ve got a real appreciation for all things Russia, and A LOT of time on your hands.