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15 July 2008

Did you know – Fact or fiction, not too sure...!?!?  We were in one of the old fortress here in Vladivostok today, and there was a Russian gun display.  One of the guns on display was off course the AK 47.  The conclusion we came to whilst looking at the AK 47 and the description of year it was made etc etc, was that the name is an abbreviation of the Russian words ‘Automatic Kalashnikov’ and it was first made in 1947, hence AK 47.

Well, from our ‘did you know’ extract for the day, you would’ve gathered that we are indeed in Russia.  We finally made it and it is such a relief to have made it here.  We got the ferry from Sokcho in South Korea on the 13th and it was about 18 hours on the ferry.  We splashed out and decided to get a room for ourselves on the ferry to try and get some sleep.  With hindsight, it probably would’ve been ok not to get a room for the 2 of us, because the ferry wasn’t that full, and we probably would’ve had a so called shared room for ourselves.  We didn’t have our best dinner on the ferry…we both don’t really eat a lot of fish and the menu for the night was off course grilled sardine (we think it was sardine), head, tail and all the insides, accompanied by nothing else but kimchi, rice and the normal watery soup.  At least we didn’t go hungry…Breakfast was, what tasted like, leftover watery soup, some more rice, a teaspoon of scrambled egg and dried seaweed.  The seaweed was the best part of the breakfast to be honest.

We arrived in Zarubino on time, and started preparing ourselves for the ‘Russian way’.  All good so far, standing patiently in the immigration line watching everyone go through without a problem.  When it got to our turn, we thought, sure no problem.  After standing there for a few minutes, watching her tapping away on the keyboard, the immigration ‘devushka’ picks up the phone to phone someone.  Oh pickle!!!!, we thought.  What now????  Luckily, she must’ve been happy with what she heard on the other side, because a few minutes later the stamps went in and we’re off (for now that is).  Next, it was clearing the car and the paper trail for that. 

Customs inspection was done on the ferry.  This was easier than stealing sweets from a baby.  The customs officer asked us to open the back (luckily we left it in a bit of a mess) so that he can see what’s in there.  With body language, I explained that this is where we sleep.  After a quite chuckle he said (Russian accent) OK, and without any hesitation, I closed the doors, not to be opened again anywhere near the custom offices.  Next came the paperwork.  We got to this little office with 2 ladies working away.  Armed with a wad of papers and our little Russian dictionary we started.  A few pleasantries were exchanged (in Russian I might add!!!) and she started filling in some documents, asking a few question, looking for my driver’s license, the car ‘passport’ etc.  We do have a carnet for the car, but did not want to use this in Russia.  Reluctantly, I handed it to her.  In the end, all she was looking for was something that shows the car details.  I did give her the car rego papers, but this didn’t seem to do the trick for her.  Anyway, after round one of filling in forms and extensive use of the dictionary, it was time to head to another office.  First we had to get insurance for the car.  We decided to get insurance for 6 months, because it will be easier and cheaper to get it in one go.  You can only pay for this in Russian Ruble.  Coincidently (or maybe not) there was a FX exchange booth in the same building (FYI – you can not get rubles anywhere outside of Russia).  After this was paid for and issued, it was on to the second floor.  Everything happens behind closed doors on the second floor.  Only later, when I had to go and sign a document, did we find out this was because of the air conditioning, and not because it’s top secret.  We spent almost 2 hours hanging around, watching the documents move from one office to the next, then back again.  Luckily, all of this was with the help of the lady who helped us with round one of filling in the forms.  After waiting patiently, the last stamp finally landed on the correct form, and we were free to go.  The custom clearing fee was USD 150.  I’m not sure if this was the official fee or not, but we were fairly happy with that and VERY happy with the fact that the whole process from the time we got off the ferry took us 4 hours.  All in all, it was a breeze.  I’ve got a funny feeling though that this won’t necessarily be the case when we come back into Russia again.

The drive from Zarubino to Vladivostok was pleasant enough.  It is about 200km in total and 50 or so of that was gravel road.  It was a bit bumpy in a few places, but nothing too bad.  There were some workers on the road and also some graders.  I’m not sure if they are going to tar the road or not. 

We eventually got to Vladivostok around 8pm and managed to find the Vladivostok hotel with only a Lonely planet map.  As we pulled into the parking area, we spotted two bikes from the UK and also another van from there.  Just as we got out of the car, we were met by a very friendly British guy, Phil (and we met his lovely wife, Dot, later on), They own the campervan and had an unfortunate experience shipping their van here.  It is a bit high for a container, and had it had to go on the ship without a container.  Port regulations here in Vladivostok is that no foreigner is allowed to go onto the docks.  Somewhere between it being on the ship and in port, someone decided to help themselves of everything in the van, as well as leaving the lights on.  The guys working at the port must’ve tried to start it to drive it, but the battery was flat.  As it happened, they managed to make a mess of the alternator.  As luck would have it, there is none of these alternators to be found in Vladivostok.  This meant getting one from the UK with DHL.  They are still waiting for it, hoping it will be arriving tomorrow.

We also met 2 bikers, Alan and Jeff, riding Triumph Tigers, not long after Phil introduced himself.  They arrived here riding west to east from the UK.  They are hoping to get to the States in the next few weeks to continue their journey.  Really nice guys as well!!!  Fingers crossed that everything goes well for them.

We will probably be heading out of Vladivostok tomorrow.  This hotel is very nice, but far too expensive, but you have to register your visa with the OVIR when you arrive here, which the hotels do for you.

To Marina (our Russian teacher), you would’ve been proud of us today!!!  We’ve managed a few broken conversations.  There are a lot of words we recognize, but can’t remember what they all mean.  And Jen, I managed to use your suggested phrase today ;-).

That’s it for now.  Will try and send some more updates soon.

Ps.  Its 9pm but it looks and feels like about 4pm?? The sun seems to set around 10pm – who knows what it will be like further north!

20 July 2008

Did you know – There are 10 different time zones across Russia and they have the worst pit toilets ever!!!!

Well, we managed to get out of Vladivostok.  It took us a bit longer than expected because of a few wrong turns and unexpectedly exploring the ‘burbs’ as they say.  We made it in the end though, which is what counts.  We left Phil and Dot behind in Vladivostok.  They’re still waiting for their new alternator for their campervan.  They might still catch up to us once they get it.  I think they’re in a bit of a hurry to get to Mongolia. 

We took it slow for the first few days and spent the first night on the road at a truck stop after about 400km for the day, where we had a surprisingly pleasant night.   Not much else happening except for some driving…

24 July 2008

Did you know – A lot of the support trucks in the annual Paris – Dakar race are the Russian Kamaz trucks.  They are one of the most rugged and reliable trucks in the event.  This is very apparent when you look at how they perform on these remote and harsh roads in far Eastern Russia.

I don‘t really know where the time goes.  We currently have a very simple life and not doing much except for driving around a bit, yet time just seems to disappear before you know it.  I’ve been meaning to ‘put pen to paper’ so to speak for a few days now, so apologies for being a bit slack…

We got a very excited phone call from Phil the day after we left Vladivostok, saying that his alternator arrived and he managed to fit it in no time and they’re already 200km from Vladivostok.  We were in Khabarovsk in the meantime and told them we will hang around for them so that we can travel together for a bit.

Khabarovsk is a very pleasant city.  I think it is safe to say that it is nicer than Vladivostok.  We got to Khabarovsk around 2pm and thought that we would look for a repair shop for some minor repairs.  I checked the oil, water etc in the morning, and noticed that the one battery lost its clamp which is suppose to hold it down in the battery tray.  Closer inspection revealed that a bit of the battery tray is also missing, where the clamp should fit.  As luck would have it, we came across a Toyota dealer.  A quick show of the problem and they said no problem.  They haven’t got a new tray or a part, but they will make me something.  20 minutes later, and it was all fixed up (I had to use a bit of epoxy glue to keep the clamp in place though – it kept coming off because of the bad road.  All seems good now though).  While we were there, I thought they might as well save me the trouble and grease a few nipples etc, and to give it a quick once over on the hoist.  No problem came the reply again.  While greasing the front, they came across the tie rod ends.  After much discussion amongst themselves, it was decided that the passenger side needs replacing because of too much movement.  Very odd I thought, because this was all in order with the last check and that was only 3000km ago.  They eventually convinced me that it needs changing.  First they didn’t have the part and it will take 2 weeks to get there, and after a bit of searching on the stock sheets they found one.  Ok, great I thought.  Lets do it. After removing the original part, they realized that it was the wrong part and realized that it is a bloody greasable part, and there should be a bit of movement.  Bugger, now I have to get a wheel alignment done as well, and the machine is not big enough for the size tyres we have.  Anyway, all got sorted in the end.  They didn’t charge me anything and they even offered for us to park there for the night.  We gladly accepted the offer…

We met with Phil and Dot the following day and decided that we will find a posh place to stay the night.  We found the very good Tourist Inn hotel in the town center and decided that this will be the spot for the night.  We asked the car park guard if it would be ok to leave the cars there for the night.  He said sure, no problem.  It will cost 200 ruble per vehicle.  Bargain we thought.  The only thing we didn’t tell him was that we were planning to sleep in the vehicles…oops!!!  I think he realized this once we went to the local bar (after converting the car park into the local kitchen) to watch our second Tri nations game.  At least we were able to use the facilities at the hotel.

With Khabarovsk in our dust we headed west.  We had about 800km to travel before Phil and Dot would carry on to Chita and for us to head north to Yakutsk.  Not too much to report except for some bad roads, lots of dust, mad Russian drivers who drive brand new cars from Japan (via Vladivostok) to Moscow and horrible pit toilets, Phil also had a spot of bother with his left front brake.  The top bolt holding the calipers in place must of popped out somewhere along the way.  The caliper was knocking the inside of the wheel.  I luckily had a bolt, which were almost the correct size.  This and a bit of wire to keep it in place and it was good to go again until the next big town which was about 300km away.  

28 July 2008

Did you know – All of Yakutsk and almost 2/3rds of Russia sit atop permafrost.  Yakutsk also has a Permafrost Institute where they explore how life can coexist with ground that thaws and freezes, killing trees and collapsing buildings.  The buildings also have triple glazing and big insulated pipes to keep the water from freezing during winter.  The coldest temperature here in Yakutsk has been around minus 67 degrees celcius according to a local we spoke to.

We’ve made it to Yakutsk.  We got here yesterday after missing the turn-off we were supposed to take.  Realized it about 20km later…oops!!  Wasn’t really our fault, there were no signs anywhere.

It took us about 4-5 days to do 1000km.  The roads are very good in places but mostly very bad.  There are a lot of sharp rocks in the road and you can see the effect on the tyres.  I suppose we could’ve done it in 2-3 days, but we would definitely have some bad consequences.

We’ve met some really nice people on the road.  We got to a small town called Tynda and were looking for a place to stay the night.  There is always someone interested in us when we stop somewhere and this time it was a local who also happened to have a Landcruiser.  He took us to a local hotel (someone who converted part of his house into a hotel – wasn’t too bad).  After a bit of negotiation we managed to convince the hotel owner (Sergey) to allow us to park there (in his garden) and use his shower and other facilities.  It ended up being a good decision.  We managed to fill our water tank, clean ourselves up and he also made us some nice breakfast to get us going for the day.  We left all refreshed and told him we will pop back in on our way down again.

We also met some other locals the following night.  We found a place to stop for the night at one of the local cafes/truck stops.  Being nosy, I decided to go and look at one of the big Kamaz trucks that were parked there.  They used this particular one as a bus between some of the towns.  There were 2 guys were busy fixing something on the truck and I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to have a closer look.  Got chatting and they offered to buy us some coffee, (turned out to be dinner) and said we should come follow them for about 60km to their base where it will be a lot nicer for us to stay.  We accepted their offer and got their base about 1 ½ hours later.  We were met by about 12 other guys (and one girl, the cook!!) and spent the evening making small talk (Once again, thanks Marina for all you hard work and effort teaching us Russian – it does open a whole new world if you can communicate a bit with the locals).  All the guys are working on the railway line, putting down new tracks.  Some of them were very young, only 18!!  It’s definitely a different life here.  They don’t seem to have a lot, but it looks like they are happy with what they do have.  It makes you think how materialistic people (mostly us ‘Westerners’) can get.  The more you have, the more you want, and nothing is ever good enough.

Anyway, we had a few drinks that night at the local and they also sorted us out with a hearty breakfast the next morning make sure we will be able to cope with the roads.  Again, we promised to stop on the way back to say hello.

Its now 10am (29th) and we are sitting in our hotel room in Yakutsk.  The hotels here are very expensive (more expensive than Vladivostok and only half as nice), but we thought we should stay one night somewhere to register our visa again.  So far, we’ve only stayed in hotels twice, here and in Vladivostok.  Not bad going.

We will stay here in Yakutsk for a few days and try to explore the surrounding areas a bit.  We’ve decided not to go to Magadan.  I think we would be able to make it (road conditions etc), but it will be 4000km in total.  The roads will be worse than what we’ve traveled on so far, so will take us far too long.  As it is, we are leaving it a bit late to try and cross the Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before winter sets in.  We knew that we probably wouldn’t be able to do both Magadan and the Pamir in one trip.  Very disappointing decision, but probably for the best…

That’s it for now.  Will keep in touch. (Ps. - the sun only sets at about 10:20pm and it is still fairly light around 11:30!!)


06 August 2008

Did you know – The BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) railway is approximately 3100km long and the Russians had to start it all over again in 1974 after work stopped during WWII and the tracks were stripped altogether to be re-used to lay a relief train line to the city of Volgograd (previously known as Stalingrad), and opened in 1991.  It passes through a 15.7km tunnel, cut through solid rock.

Un- freaking – believable!!!!  There are a squillion mozzies outside.  Try to brush your teeth and have a quick whiz outside while being ambushed, I think not!!!  It is like the one episode of McGyver when everything got invaded by millions of ants, you just don’t know where to turn to.  Anyway, enough moaning for now.  We are just outside of Chita and it is 11pm.

It’s been about a week since our last update from Yakutsk.  We didn’t stay there too long.  We had crappy weather, and to be honest, there isn’t all that much to do there.  We managed to go to the one museum. It was kind of interesting, but everything was in Russian, and we only have a small dictionary and only had an hour or so.

We managed to just make it for the ferry crossing back from Yakutsk.  The one guy on the ferry recognized us, and very quickly invited us to the ‘Captain’s cabin’ where we started chatting and making small talk.  After a coffee and a few shots of cognac, we thought we should probably try and find out when we are suppose to leave, because it was still only our car on the ferry and it was already 6pm.  Much to our surprise, they told us, nope, this one won’t be leaving for a while, but the ferry about 500m downriver will leave very shortly.  After a quick good bye we made a dash for what we thought is the last spot on the ferry.  We managed to get on, and 2 other cars managed to get on after us.  Talk about a tight squeeze.

Our 1000km return journey was mediocre.  We stopped at our new friends the railway workers again, and also in Tynda with our hotel owner friend, Sergey.  On our way into Tynda we came across 2 other overland travelers.  The only thing is that they are doing it by bicycle.  They are Eric and Christine and from Switzerland.  They have been cycling for almost 4 years now (and they’ve done about 34,000km so far) and plan to keep going for the next 8 or so years.  Amazingly, they are 52 and 47 years old respectively.  They certainly don’t look it.  (So, another seed has been planted – a quick 2 or 3 month side trip on a bicycle to India/Nepal (Himalayas) after our stop in London sounds like a very good idea…brain ticking over…!!!)  We do wish them well with all their travels and really hope that they will be able to fulfill there dreams.

After about 1500km of bad roads, it was time for our first problem.  We noticed that the back door is letting a lot of dust in and there also seems to be a bit of water coming in when it is raining hard.  After some closer inspection, we discovered that the one side of the ‘barn doors’, the one with the tyre on it, is taking a bit of strain.  A big crack appeared and the top bit was not sealing properly against the car.  Luckily, we were only about 400km away from Chita, and we were blessed with some normal roads instead of the corrugated, stony, pot-holed so-called roads.  We took it slow and when we got to Chita managed to find a place where they could do a bit of welding on the back door.  The only dilemma now is whether we leave the wheel on the back door or do we put it on the roof rack as well.  I’m not too keen on the roof rack idea because of the extra weight, but it might be the only way to go.  Alistair, I remember you asked a while ago if there is anything I would have done differently in preparing the car.  Well, with hindsight, I would have spent the extra money to get a wheel carrier for the back, maybe even a dual wheel carrier to get the weight of the back door and the roof.  Will see how we go when we get to London.

We also managed to do a first oil change and wheel rotation (for those interested, the oil change was done at about 6500km.  Reasoning behind that (oil change at 6500km, and not at the normal 5000km) was that the engine wasn’t doing a lot of stop/start city driving, but more constant speeds.) 

We also met one of Russia’s top dragster racing drivers (Sergey…again).  A really nice guy, and very keen to show us some of his racing projects and to have a general chat about his racing.  He left us with a few dvds of him racing, so we will see how good he really is.

We are heading to the western side of Lake Baikal in the next few days to relax a bit.  We haven’t really been able to do that yet.  It’s amazing how busy we are, with what I’m not sure.

11 August 2008

Did you know – Lake Baikalis the world’s deepest lake and contains nearly one fifth of the planet’sunfrozen fresh water.  The lake freezesover in winter and becomes a ‘highway’ linking the lake’s coasts and the northto south. The lake is approximately 630 km long from north to south, approximately90km wide at some points and a whopping 1600 meters deep.  Lake Baikal is also well knownfor its delicious smoked Omul fish.

It must be a record.  We’ve been in one spot for the past 24 hoursand haven’t done a thing, just a bit of r & r.  It is nice to just sit around for a bit andrecharge the batteries.  You would thinkwe are working our butts off, wouldn’t you!!

We’ve made it to Lake Baikal.  We decided to not spend time in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk on the way here,but to rather spend some time there on the way back.  We wanted to get to Baikal and just relax abit.

It was a long drive from Irkutskto the ferry crossing for Olkhon Island.  Olkhon Island is a small island in Lake Baikal.  We got to the ferry crossing at 11pm (webroke one of our first rules, and that is not to drive at night, but is wasonly for about 30 minutes and we were almost the only people on the road).  The ferry is free, which was good, but thebad part was that it only takes about 10 cars at a time and runs ones anhour.  Even worse, some people getpreference to get on the ferry.  Therewere about 30 cars in front of us, which means we have at least 3 hours ofwaiting around.  In the end, we were 3rdfrom the front when they decided to stop running for the night.  This was just after 3am.  We weren’t sure what time they would startagain, so decided that it’s probably a good thing to get up early.  The alarm was set for 5:30am and weeventually got on at 7:30!!  We made itin the end, which is the main thing.

It is definitely a lot more touristyhere.  We’ve already met some Englishpeople and there were some Italian overlanders in the queue at the ferry.  It is strange to see tourists again.  Even though we are still far from Europe, it seems so much more accessible here. To befair, it is a lot nicer here than in the east of Russian anyway, so you can seewhy people would rather come here.  Thereis definitely a bit more money around.

Oh yes, before I forget.  Like we say in Afrikaans, “van die os op diejas”, which means to change subject quickly. We bought some lovely fresh raspberries from the side of the road theother day, and decided we would try and make a bit of jam.  All I can say is that it is damn good!!!!  Might need to do that a bit more often.

We booked a ‘banya’ for this afternoon.  For those who don’t know, itis a Russian bathhouse.  Similar to a sauna but for some unknown reason just a bit better.  We also have the dried birch twigs, which we will try for the first time today – the Russian’s use the twigs to beat themselves (gently I suppose) and this is meant to be pleasant and cleansing.  Some more R&R coming up!!!

That’s it for now, Time to pack up to goto the banya and then find another nice camp spot here on the island (there are no mozzies here, which is great!!)

16 August 2008

Sorry, no did you know fact for today - just a quick update.

We are now in Ulan Ude and will be heading to Mongolia today.  We are hoping to cross the border tomorrow and then go to Ulaan Bataar to get a few visas sorted out.  Will have more news then.

19 September 2008

Did you know – Russian dolls; Why are they called "Matryoshka"?  Russian wooden dolls within smaller dolls were called Matryoshka. In old Russian among peasants the name Matryona or Matriosha was a very popular female name. Scholars say this name has a Latin root "mater" and means "Mother". This name was associated with the image of a mother of a big peasant family who was very healthy and had a portly figure.

Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to image brightly painted wooden figurines made in such a way that they could be taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.

The weather has been poor the last few days.  We had one good day since we came back into Russia, the rest have been rain and more rain.  We went to the Teletskoe lakes in the Altai, and we were hoping to spend a few days there, relaxing a bit.  The area is really very scenic, and there is such a big difference here compared to parts of Eastern Russia we’ve seen.  You really do notice that is a more touristy area, and you also notice that there is a bit more money in the communities.  The cafes are certainly more expensive and the portions a bit smaller.  We decided to move on after spending 1 night by the lakes because we had another big storm and it rained through the night, and was still raining the next morning.  It didn’t look very promising, and there’s not much you can do at the lakes when it’s raining. 

We headed back to the main local town, Gorno-Altaisk, to go and register our visa.  From our understanding, you need to register your visa at least once every time you come back into Russia.  We wanted to take the chance and not register our visa but in the end decided against it.  Not wanting to stay in a hotel just for the sake of registering the visas, we managed to find the local immigration office for the Altai republic where you can do that.  It did however cost us Euro 10 per person for the registration.  There are 2 agents who can complete the process for you and you need a ‘magic stamp;’ on you immigration card.  Once we got that sorted, it was time to head to Barnaul.  It was time to change the fuel filters on Pumbaa (we were getting a bit of white smoke when starting it in the mornings, and the filters where 15,000km old anyway), and I didn’t feel like getting my hands dirty.  We tracked the local Toyota dealer where a 30-minute job turned into about 2 hours due to the positions of the filters.  (We originally had to move some of the filters in the engine bay to make space for the extra batteries)  I could’ve told them about it if I was allowed in the workshop to start with.  Anyway, all done in the end, and Pumbaa is running nicely again.

We ended up only spending about a week in the Altai area before we headed south to the Russia/Kazak border crossing.  Our Kazak visa starts on 20 Sept, so we decided to get to the crossing on the evening of the 19th where we are staying for the night.  Will let you know how the crossing goes.

Until next time…

08 December 2008

Did you know – This one is a bit longer than normal because we felt that it deserves more than a few lines to honour the people who lost their lives in Volgograd during WWII.

Volgograd used to be called Stalingrad during the Soviet period to honour their then leader Stalin. The city changed its name again in 1961 to Volgograd to pay tribute to the mighty Volga River.

A German Nazi blitz in 1941 on the former USSR caused some headache for Stalin. Moscow was on the brink of being taken over by the Nazis. The only thing that stopped them was the severe Russian winter.

Hitler made another plan by spring 1942 to take hold of the southern part of USSR. One of the key areas he wanted to take control of was the Volga region, with Volgograd (then named Stalingrad) the main city to concur. Stalin kept his troops in Moscow incase the Germans advanced to Moscow again. This left the Volga region very vulnerable. Hitler prepared around 250,000 troops for the initial planned assault. Things started well with the assault, and it was almost certain that the Volga region and Stalingrad would fall under Nazi control.

The commander in charge, Marshal Zhukov, put together the plan for battle with an one million man reinforcement from the Red Army. Hitler refused to retreat his troops and almost all of the troops were killed or taken as prisoners.

Stalingrad was the longest and most decisively battle of WWII. The city was completely ruined with hardly any buildings left, and the countryside was not any better off.

An estimated 750,000 German soldiers died in the battle. The Russian deaths were never officially calculated, but estimates range over one million casualties.

The success of the battle by the Red Army against the Nazis was most likely one of the greatest triumphs of the USSR.

I’m sure you gathered from the ‘did you know’ that we are now back in Russia. We only spent a few days in Kazakhstan. There’s not much happening in the west of Kazakh. We got to the border a lot quicker than anticipated. We decided not to buy insurance for the few days we were there. We did try to get some, but the guy in the little office where we entered Kazakh didn’t want to sell us any for some reason.

Leaving Kazakhstan, the Kazakh side was very quick and easy, with the exception of the stupid customs guy who wanted to have a good nose around. He managed to break the side pouch on the front door, and I almost lost it with him, because he thought it was a big joke. After our little episode, I just ignored him, swore at him a little and drove off. I think he still wanted to look at other stuff, but I wasn’t in the mood. We got to the Russian side after a few kms in no-man’s land. Passport control was quick and easy. Customs would’ve been easy if they prepared our paperwork for the temporary car import with the dates we wanted. The girl who completed the declaration gave us 5 days on the declaration to get from there to Moscow, St Petersburg and out of Russia again. This was obviously not going to happen and I told her that we wanted 40 days. This was off course a problem and we had to go and speak to the main inspector. After a 5 or 10 minutes of discussion, he agreed to 30 days. This still wasn’t enough for us though. The girl prepared all the paperwork and I had to sign it, but refused, saying that we need more time than that. Off we go to the inspector again. In the end, we managed to get 35 days or so, but I had to write a letter there to say where we’ll be and when we’ll leave Russia. This guy was only following orders from his chief I suppose. He was very nice and tried to help out as much as possible. So, for those entering Russia at the Astrakhan border (or any other border for that matter I suppose), remember to make sure you have enough time on the temporary vehicle documentation they issue you. Make sure it is for the total period you are going to spend there for that particular entry. We spent about 4 hours there in total I think. 2 or 3 of these hours were trying to sort out the dates. Oh yes, it also cost 200 Roubles for the car docs.

We spent a day in Astrakhan, nice little town, but not too much going on. There is this weird bridge you have to cross to get to the city. The bridge is floating, so any movement of the water is felt in the car. It’s like a giant wobbly bridge, very weird. We left for Volgograd the next morning. There’s not much to see on the way. Just open fields with the river to the one side. I think it is about 400km to Volgograd.

Volgograd is a big city, with a population of more than a million. We wanted to visit the city to see the museum dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives during the Stalingrad battle and to see the other memorials. The city is also nice, being rebuilt after WWII. The memorial to those who died was very moving. It is hard to believe that so many people lost their lives here, protecting their own. It is unbelievable that one person can directly and indirectly cause so much devastation and heartache, trying to fulfill an obscure dream or vision that one person is better than another because of their race and background and to try and create a perfect race.

We should be in Moscow in a week or so. It’s going to be super expensive, but looking forward to it.
14 December 2008

Did you know – St Petersburg became the capital of Russia in the early 18th century when Peter I transferred it from Moscow.  In 1917 the Soviet government transferred it back to Moscow.  The Kremlin is now the seat of the highest state bodies.  It became the residence of the Russian President and his Administration from 1992.  It houses magnificent treasures from ancient Russian regalia, gold and silverware and royal carriages.  The Kremlin occupies approximately 90 acres of land in the historic center of Moscow.  The Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral are truly magnificent places and a must see when visiting Moscow.

We’ve made it to Moscow, can you believe it?!  We stayed just outside the city on Friday night, because we didn’t want to attempt finding a place to stay in the dark, and the traffic is a nightmare.  We got here early Saturday morning and after relaxing for a couple of hours in the hostel, we decided to brave the cold (no snow yet though) and take a walk.  First place to visit was obviously the Red Square outside the Kremlin.  It was a little bit emotional to finally get here, after almost 30,000km of mainly bad roads and a few countries along the way thrown in for good measure.  It’s hard to describe the sense of achievement when we stood there.  We just couldn’t get the smiles of our faces.  We still can’t believe we’re here.  The city is really beautiful (or the parts we’ve seen so far) and you can see why Russians are proud of the place.  First impressions, well we think we can live and work here – who knows, maybe one day.

We spend yesterday and today looking at the main sites of the city and spent a lot of time looking at the treasures of the Kremlin.  It’s expensive to get in, but it is worth every penny or is it kopeks?  We also managed to get tickets to the National Russian Philharmonic Orchestra who was playing ‘Masterpieces of Slavonic Music’.  The event was at the Moscow International Performing Arts Center.

The performance was really good and a very good night out.  It wasn’t too expensive; the tickets were between RR 500 – RR 2,000.  We might try and see a ballet in St Petersburg again.  We’re probably leaving Moscow the day before The Nutcracker starts at the Bolshoi theatre.
23 December 2008
Did you know – The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg was originally founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great purchased a collection of 225 Flemish and Dutch paintings from a Berlin merchant called Johann Ernest Gotzkowski.  Currently the collection contains around 3 million exhibit items including 16,783 paintings, 621,274 works of graphic art, 12,556 sculptures, 298,775 works of applied art, 734,400 archeological monuments, 1,125,323 numismatics and 144,185 other exhibit items.

First of all, may we wish all of you a very blessed and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year as well, especially to all our family, whom we will miss over the festive season – we will have to have a shot of vodka for each member of our family.  We also hope that you’ll all be able to stick with all your New Year’s resolutions.

We left Moscow after a really enjoyable 3 nights there.  What a marvelous place.  Yes, it may be expensive, but not overly so compared to other European cities.  It should be on everyone’s list who is traveling overland through Russia.  I’m not sure if we were just lucky, but we never experienced the mad traffic of Moscow.

We took our time driving to St Petersburg, getting there in 3 days.  We spent the first night in Novgorad and from there we went to a small town just outside of St Petersburg, called Pushkin.  This is where you can find the exquisite Tsarskoe Selo (an Imperial estate) with the impressive Catherine Palace.  Here, at the palace, you will find a room where the walls are completely covered with amber.  What a sight...!  We were unfortunately not allowed to take any photos in this particular room.  The palace also has really big gardens.  We did go for a stroll in the garden, but with winter upon us, and the ground covered in snow, it was definitely not as nice as it will be in the summer.  Still, its a very nice place to be.  As it happened, it turned out to be Friday when we were there (Friday and Saturdays are traditionally the days everyone seems to get married in Russia, because this is when the registry office is open) and there was a bride and groom taking photos here.  Not only inside the palace, but also taking some photos in the gardens.  The poor girl was freezing her bits off in the cold windy weather.  Must’ve been about –3 or so outside with the wind blowing and she was there in her wedding dress with her bridesmaid parading around in a miniskirt.  Anyway, we found our spot for that night, about 15 km outside St Petersburg so that we can get into town quickly the next day.

So, where do you start in St Petersburg, the city of culture (not that Moscow isn’t a place of culture)?  We found a good value hostel in the center of town, where we are currently staying.  Not a bad place, but not busy at the moment.  I think there are 2 other people staying here.  There are so many things to see here.  It’s a good thing we’ve got a few days here, hanging around until Boxing Day, until we head off to Estonia.

We thought it’s probably a good idea to get the 2-day ticket for the Hermitage, because there are so many things to see and the place is absolutely huge.  The Hermitage is truly a magnificent, awesome, spectacular (and another 100 more adjectives) place to be in.  Everything about the place is so grand and big.  It is truly one of the best museums and art collections of the world.  Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet, Da Vinci and Matisse to name only a few.  There are rooms dedicated to these people.  I think there must’ve been about 20 of Picasso’s paintings and the same for a lot of the others.  Then you have all the sculpture, and the magnificent rooms, with the 10-meter high ceilings and the dazzling gold and enormous chandeliers.  It is really very hard to describe the place.  We have taken a lot of photos, and you can see some of them in a separate folder called ’08 Russia Hermitage’ in the photo album section.  We both unanimously decided that our favourite painter is Claude Monet and our favourite painting is ‘Lady in the Garden’.  Second and third place for me goes to ‘Thatched Cottages’ by Vincent van Gogh and ‘The Red Room’ by Henri Matisse.  You can see all these in the photo album.  I will probably change my mind a hundred times again on my favourite paintings.  Our favourite sculpture (especially Mandy’s) is ‘The Little Cupid’.  I don’t think it is the official name of it.  So I’m sure you gathered that we really enjoyed our 2 days in the Hermitage.  If you ever come to St Petersburg, DO NOT miss out on coming here.

As luck would have it, we saw that Swan Lake was also being performed in the world famous Mariinsky theatre where the Kirov Ballet is well known.  Also, as luck would have it, they only had top tickets left, and at was a little bit pricey at $150 per ticket unfortunately.  For some reason though, I checked the availibity of tickets again the following day, and Santa must’ve had a word with someone, because there were some cheaper tickets available.  Safe to say, we snapped them up in no time as an early Christmas present from us, to us.  We went to see it 2 nights ago, and yet again, what an amazing performance.  It was about 3 ½ hours long, but it felt like only 60 minutes.  We could’ve watched them the whole night.  The music was perfect, the dancing even more perfect (yes, that’s right…more perfect, there is such a thing).  The costumes were beautiful and we even had good seats.  I think I’m definitely getting a bit biased towards Tchaikovsky’s music.  I know, I know…you must be thinking what in the world got into these 2 gypsies, what with all this culture all of a sudden!!!  We are going to see another performance by a cello soloist tomorrow night.  I’m sure it will also be great.

The rest of our time so far have been spent walking around in the snow, looking at all the beautiful buildings and also the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  This is St Petersburg’s equivalent of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral.  The church was closed for services in the 1930s, when the Bolsheviks went on an offensive against religion and destroyed churches all over the country. It remained closed and under restoration for over 30 years and was finally re-opened in 1997 in all its dazzling former glory.

Well, enough chit-chat for now.  Its after 12 already…way past our bedtime.
27 December 2008

Did you know – St Isaac’s Church in St Petersburg was under construction for 40 years (1818-1858) and was decorated in the most elaborate way possible.  The columns in the Church are made of single pieces of red granite and weigh around 80 tons each!  One of the bronze doors/gate inside weights 19 tons and has been beautifully decorated with biblical figures.  The church can accommodate 14,000 worshippers and although it now serves as a museum services are still held on significant holidays.

Christmas day was a quiet affair for us.  As you would’ve gathered from the ‘did you know’, 25 December is just another ordinary day in Russia.  So in a sense, we missed out on Christmas this year, because Europe celebrates Christmas in December as well.  We did at least managed to speak to our parents, which was very nice.

We had a very lazy day though.  We only left the hostel around lunchtime.  We didn’t have too much planned for the day.  We went to the State History museum in St Petersburg.  Most of the museum is dedicated to the ‘Blockade’ of WWII where the Nazis tried to invade St Petersburg.  The city was completely cut off from the rest of the country and a lot of hardships followed.  It got to the point where rations were just 125 grams of bread per day.  To make it worse, the bread was made from 50% flour and the rest was sawdust and a few other nasty things you would never dream of eating.  It just once again made us appreciate the freedom we have and the abundance of whatever we want.  There was also one disturbing photo of 2 men on their knees in front of a mass grave with 2 soldiers standing behind them, pistols drawn, with an expression on their facers which can only be described ‘cursed by the devil’.  You know exactly what happened in the few seconds after that, and the only thing I could think of was why…???  How can people be so gruesome and soulless?  And to think of it, this is still happening everyday in places not so far from us.

Anyway, to move on a bit.  We also went to the awe-inspiring St Isaacs cathedral in St Petersburg.  This is yet another truly magnificent place.  This should also be on the list of must see places when visiting here.  So after our lazy excursion day, we went to find our own Christmas lunch.  We managed to find a bit of roast chook and some nice salads and had our very own Christmas dinner and a nice bottle of wine back at the hostel.

All good things come to an end though and we decided to leave on Boxing Day.  We only left late afternoon and slowly made our way to the Russian border for the last time.  We decided to enter the EU at Estonia.  We spent our last night about 50kms from the border and in true Russian style managed to almost finish a small bottle of vodka.  It was a sad night and the following day was also a bit sad.  Our Russian adventure has come to an end.  Nothing could’ve prepared us for what we’ve experienced here, entering Russia for the first time on 14 July in the far eastern corners of the country.  Luckily all of our experiences were good, with friendly people most of the time, and would you believe it, when never paid any fines or bribes.  There were a few very close calls, the last one in Moscow where I probably deserved a fine for making an illegal u-turn.  I managed to get away though after some very harsh words and also a bit of shouting in the end.  The other close call was in St Petersburg.  I ended up driving away after grabbing my paperwork out of the policeman’s hands.  Not sure if he took our details down, but it doesn’t really matter now.  In our 6 months of traveling so far, 5 of those were spent in former USSR countries, and to be honest, we’re a bit over cutlets, shashliks and soups with dill and sour cream.  Some of it was very good though, and I’m sure we will miss it sooner than expected.

We finally arrived at the border crossing just before 12 noon.  Leaving Russia was very easy and straightforward.  You just need to hand back your Russian car papers and complete new declarations and they stamp you out.  We’re not sure what to make of the visa registrations though.  In theory, you are supposed to register within 72 hours.  We chose to ignore it this time and stayed in a hotel for 1 night after the 5 or 6th day.  Our next hostel stay was in Moscow.  We stayed for 3 nights and they told us that you only need to register if you stay more than 3 nights.  We stayed in St Petersburg for 6 nights, but they wanted to charge us 600 Roubles for the registration.  We decided not to register.  The guy at the hostel said there is no way they can know where you are if you travel the way we do, i.e independently.  It would be a different story if you had to travel by train or plane for example.  The authorities will then know where you are and how long you stayed in one place.  So I suppose it’s up to you…I wouldn’t pay too much attention to it if we come again, except for the very first time we enter with a new visa – if that makes sense.  It didn’t take too long on the EU side either.  The customs and immigration did a bit of paperwork on their side.  I never received anything, even after asking them about declarations etc.  They assured me it was ok.  I suppose we’ll have to wait and see when we eventually leave the EU.  It took a total of about 45 minutes.  It would’ve been quicker, was it not for the fact that I was waiting for the insurance lady.  You have to have at least 3rd party insurance in the EU.  We do have this, but only for 1 month, and it cost a whopping Euro 105 for the 30 days. I was hoping to get some more, cheaper insurance at the border.  A word of warning though, if you do enter at this border, the insurance lady at the Estonian side does not sell green card insurance.  It is only valid in Estonia.  She said that the insurance post on the Russian side sells green card insurance.  Great, but that’s no help unfortunately.

So all in all, a good day with quick border crossings, but also a sad day because we won’t be going back to Russia again on this trip.  We will be back though, I’m sure, but probably not too soon.  Once again, to our Russian teacher Marina, thanks for all your help with our lessons.  It really made life so much easier for us in your beautiful country.

Until we meet again…

Here are our likes and dislikes for the country

Russia likes and dislikes.

- There are a lot of likes - we liked Moscow and The Kremlin and the beautiful St Petersburg with The Hermitage and seeing Swan Lake at the Mariinsky theatre.  We also liked the openness and beauty of Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal.  We liked the friendly and hospitable everyday people of east and northeast Russia.

- We didn’t particularly like the police with their little batons and whistles and the not so friendly attitude of some people working in tourist spots.  Our ultimate dislike must be the awful pit toilets you find in some places…absolutely horrendous.

- We liked the really tasty and very cheap salami and off course our new favourite drink.  Yes, you guessed it, vodka.  Our favourite is however a Ukrainian birch flavoured vodka called Nemiroff.  We also like the blennies topped with condense milk (type of pancake) and the very versatile carrot salad you find in all supermarkets.

- We disliked some versions of the raw cabbage salads and the bulger wheat, a rather bland affair.  Fortunately, not too many things we disliked here.