RUSSIA and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #5

Kazan 28-July-2004


Since arriving back in Russia, from Mongolia, we have travelled a further 4000 km and are now in Kazan. Kazan is considered part of European Russia so we have finally left Siberia. A few days ago we passed through Perm, another closed city during the Soviet era, which is in the Ural Mountains, and divides Western Russia (or European Russia) from Siberian Russia (Asia Russia). Being back in Russia is a stark contrast to Mongolia. Russia is so much more well developed compared to Mongolia. It is was quite a culture shock to be back on sealed roads, albeit full of potholes and often very rough. The GERs have been replaced with wooden and concrete buildings, supermarkets stocked with an extensive range of food products, luxury vehicles as opposed to Russian jeeps and Mongolian horsemen, more rubbish everywhere and the regular police check points are back. In Mongolia you pay for fuel after filling your tank, just like in most other countries of the world. In Russia you must pay for fuel before filling your tank. We miss the peace, tranquillity and simplicity of travelling through Mongolia.

Having crossed into Russia we entered the Altay Republic which is a very mountainous area straddling the corners of Southern Siberia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. We drove for many days following the M52 Russian highway through the mountains which follows one river system after another. Often the road took us through narrow gorges flanked by tall pine forested mountains. The road started out at over 6000 feet above sea level, crossed a couple of mountain passes and finally dropped down to 200 feet above sea level near Barnaul.  The scenery was breath taking, some of the best we have seen since leaving Vladivostok. We had some delightful camp spots by the river shaded by pine trees. This is a very popular area for Russian holiday makers so we were not alone. The rivers through the Altay area are fast flowing so white water rafting is very popular. We saw many families and school groups on rafting and camping holidays. We had some interesting conversations trying to talk to other campers who were quite envious of our travels through Russia and Mongolia.

To date we have seen very few overseas tourists. Near the town of Ortolyk we saw three Kawasaki motorbikes coming towards us. Knowing that these were obviously other overlanders, we stopped to say hello. We were both quite surprised but delighted when the bikers said G’day mate in an accent we knew was fair dinkum Aussie. Shane, Don and Phil are all from Melbourne and are riding from London to Vladivostok. All three were on long service leave. We had a great time sharing about our experiences of travelling through Russia and both learnt more of what to expect ahead.

We turned off the M52 near Gomo Altaysk and headed for Lake Teletskoe. This lake is popular with Russian tourists looking for a place simply to relax and enjoy picnics, walking, horse riding and water activities. We had hoped to take a ferry to see the Korbu waterfall however the ferry was fully booked out. So after having lunch and looking around we left and bush camped on the way to Biysk. It is a requirement to register one’s visa within three business days of entering Russia. This can be done either by registered tourist hotels or at a government visa registration office. We had tried to do this at various towns along the way however none of the hotels were able to register our visa. On the 5th day in Biysk we could not find a hotel that would register our visa so we tried going to the government visa registration office. This proved futile as they would not register our visa without a letter of introduction from our Russia host organization which issued our visa invitation. We spoke to a travel agency in Biysk and they suggested that we may have a better chance of getting registered in Barnaul.

On leaving Biysk we were stopped at a police check point. They pointed out to us that we had not registered our visa. The police officer let us through when we assured him that we were on our way to Barnaul to get our visa registered. The road from Biysk to Barnaul was very good and passed through fertile farming country. We arrived in Barnaul at 1pm and were very relieved when the Hotel Tsentralnaya registered our visa on the spot, no questions asked. After having camped for many weeks it was nice to catch up on a hot shower and sleep in a bed. This was a small price to pay in order to get registered. Barnaul is a very prosperous industrial city with a few trendy cafes and great restaurants. We spent an afternoon and morning looking around Barnaul and then headed north to Novosibirsk.

Novosibirsk began as a major city to service the trans-siberian railway. It has since become an industrial hub for the coal fields to the east and mineral deposits of the Ural Mountains to the west. Novosibirsk is the ‘unofficial’ capital of Siberia and is the largest city in Siberia with a population of over 1.5 million.  The city is on the Ob River which starts in the Altay mountains and flows all the way to the Artic Ocean. We had hoped to stay with some friends of Hazel Barker however they were away on holidays so we ended up staying at the Hotel Novosibirsk, which is in the heart of the city opposite the very grand and refurbished railway station. We tried to stay at the railway station hotel however all the cheaper rooms were full. We spent two days looking around the city. Unfortunately it rained most of the time. We had hoped to see a performance at the Opera and Ballet Theatre but it was closed for renovations.

We always feel a bit tense driving into unfamiliar cities however to date we have had no problems.  Before we left on our trip we found GPS maps for all of the major Russian cities. These maps can be downloaded into the GPS and viewed on the GPS colour screen. Also, with the GPS connected to the laptop, our position is drawn on the city maps in real time. This has made Kienny’s job as navigator much easier and as a result we have not had any problems driving through the heart of any Russian cities. This has worked so well that we have not purchased any printed city maps. We have also found the Russian road signs to be quite good. Most of the major roads go close to the city centre. There are usually signs pointing to the city centre, which for most cities is Lelina Ulitisa or Prospect (Lelina Street or Avenue). One of the best things Kienny did before leaving home was to learn the Russian Cyrillic alphabet which is vital in order to be able to read the Russian street names.

We have constantly been amazed at how friendly and helpful everyone has been. Many people, including the police, stop to talk to us and want to know where we have come from and where we are going. Most people cannot understand why we would want to do such a trip and why we would choose Russia. They seem quite bemused when we say that we have been enjoying our time in Russia. Some people have given us chocolates and water melons or even refused payment for a meal. We have been asked on quite a few occasions if the police have given us a hard time. We have heard from other travellers who have had problems with the police but this has not been our experience (to date!). On one occasion we suspected that a police officer was going to give us a hard time and solicit a bribe but when Kienny started to talk to him about our trip in Russian he shook his head in amazement, wished us a good trip, and waved us on.

On leaving Novosibirsk we once again joined the Russian east west highway (or track or road depending on where you are). The first thing we noticed was that we rejoined the convoys of second hand Japanese vehicles being driven from Vladivostok to the cities in Western Russia and Central Asia. For the first time we started to see European made vehicles such as VW, Peugeot, Audi, Mercedes and BMWs. It has been interesting to see the cars change as we travel further west. In the East, nearly all cars are from Japan and are right hand drive. In Central Russia there is a mix of Russian, Japanese and European cars. The further west we go the ratio of European to Japanese cars increases.

Western Siberia is also very agricultural. Just about everywhere there are crops of wheat, barley, oats, corn, canola, sun flower and potato being grown. The soil looked very fertile. In one field you can see wheat being harvested and right alongside you can see a new crop of wheat being sown. Unlike Eastern Siberia where much of the farm machinery is old and on small plots, farming in Western Siberia is done on a large scale with more modern equipment. This is a relative term. Compared to Australia or the US, the equipment looks quite outdated but for Russia it looks quite modern. Many of the tractors are large and articulated. On many occasions we have also seen bull dozers pulling a scarifier.  Everywhere people are making hay. All the hay is cut from the natural growing grass. Some people cut hay along side the road using a sickle and then load the hay into the boot of their car. Some hay is cut, gathered and piled by hand into a large hay stack. In other areas hay making is done on a very large scale and rolled, some even covered in plastic just like home. Hay is obviously a very important commodity in the harsh Siberian winter.

The countryside west of Novosibirsk was rather flat and only a few hundred feet above sea level. For the first time the countryside was not as picturesque as other parts of Siberia. It was not until we reached the Ural Mountains that the countryside once again took on a more scenic nature. With the exception of the M52 in the Altay Region, most bitumen roads we have driven on in Russia have been substandard and quite rough.  It was quite a pleasant change to find a 400km stretch of new concrete road linking Novosibirsk to Omsk. After Omsk we had to turn off the M51 highway and take the northern route to Yekaterinburg via Tumen as the M51 now passes through Kazakhstan (formerly part of Russia) for a short distance. This meant that without a Kazakhstan visa we were not able to continue on the M51 highway.

On the way to Tumen we were flagged down by two white 100 series Toyota Landcruisers with Russian number plates. At first we ignored them but then heard someone yelling ‘we are Aussies’ so we stopped to talk to Duncan and his wife and their Russian companions. It turned out that Duncan was managing an Aluminium smelter in Krasnoyarsk but was just finishing a two year assignment and driving to Moscow before returning to Australia. Duncan was quite shocked to see an Australian registered vehicle in Central Russia and asked what we were doing so I told him that we got lost finding our way to London.

We had intended to stay in Yekaterinburg however we would have arrived too late so we ended up camping just before town. In the morning we drove into Yekaterinburg. At the entrance to Yekaterinburg there is a monument to a Surface to Air (SAM) missile. This is the town where Gary Powers' U2 spy plane was shot down in 1960 during the middle of the cold war. This is the city where the Tsar and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks. We thought we might catch a show at the Opera and Ballet Theatre however we were disappointed to discover that it too was closed for the summer. In the square adjacent to the Theatre there was a large crowd of people so we decided to go over and see what the attraction was. Once again Russia defied our preconceptions. Performing in a large outdoor amphitheatre were a number of lovely ladies singing and dancing the famous ABBA hits in English. The atmosphere was electrifying. We also tried to visit two museums but both were closed for renovations. We strolled through the city centre and then left after having dinner at a restaurant and camped not far out of town.

Our next destination was Kazan via Perm and Izhevsk.  The road from Perm to Kazan was very scenic, the traffic was light and the road in good condition. This road crosses the Ural Mountains which divides Europe from Asia. The Ural Mountains stretch some 2000km from the Arctic in the north to Kazakhstan in the south. The mountains do not compare in height with other famous mountain ranges however they are a rich source of metals, minerals and oil which are vital to the Russian economy. There are oil wells dotted all throughout the countryside. Small vendors on the side of the road were selling honey, potatoes, raspberries and blueberries. As has been the case since Biysk, much of the land is being farmed or grazed.  It was on a quiet section of this road that we were forced to stop because a group of people formed a human chain blocking the road in front of us. Our initial reaction was of concern for our safety. Once stopped it soon became apparent that this was a wedding party and it was customary for passing vehicles to give a small monetary gift to the newly married couple in return for a small glass of vodka. When the party realized that we were foreigners we were invited to join them for a photo session. They offered us pate and bread and vodka (which we politely refused). The fun continued as more vehicles were stopped and offered vodka in exchange for a monetary donation.

We finally arrived in Kazan which is on the Volga River. The Volga River is the heartland of Russia and at 3700km in length is Europe’s longest river. It has 200 tributaries and starts North West of Moscow and flows into the Caspian Sea. Kazan has a very Central Asian atmosphere with a nomadic Turkish Tatar heritage.  This city flourishes as the gateway to Siberia and the region is rich in oil. We strolled through the mall and were surprised to see our first McDonalds with very long queues. Kienny’s first response was to try out the flushing toilets, soft toilet paper and wash basin with hot water. This was quite a novelty as we had not seen a good working western toilet since leaving home. The mall was full of people strolling through the up market stores, eating at the alfresco cafes and restaurants to the sounds of buskers playing their accordion, guitar, violin and flutes. This was also the “Day of the North Fleet” and hence there were many sailors in town. Many had travelled from Murmansk (the home of the Russian fleet) especially for the occasion. It was also the first time that we had seen beggars in Russia. These people did not have a Russian appearance and looked like gypsies to us. We spent some time looking through the Kremlin and surrounding areas. It was all very interesting.

From here our plans are to continue our journey westwards to Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, Suzdal and Moscow. The further west we travel, the more developed everything becomes. The change is evident as the wooden outhouses at petrol stations are replaced by brick or cement. However this has not made the experience of visiting these toilets any more pleasant. It is still a deep pit and I dread the thought of dropping the car keys or money pouch into the quagmire below.  The roads are busier with more traffic and we even see the odd tourist bus. We get the feeling that our adventure will soon come to an end as we join the main tourist route. We apologise if we have not responded to your emails as time at internet cafes is limited. Be assured that we do appreciate them very much.

You can see pictures for this part of our journey by clicking here. Our WEB site containing our travels in Africa and Russia is http://overland.dreamers1.com.

Best wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

ContentsPreviousNext