Russia was never really a place I’d intended to travel and I definitely had no plans to go overland: “It’s icy cold isn’t it”?
My journey begins in Brisbane, Australia where we packed the trusty Land Rover into a China Shipping container bound for South Korea.
We then fly on Eva Air to South Korea to pick up the Land Rover two weeks later … only to be held up by a “missing” International Drivers Licence and unyielding Korean customs officials. Eventually, freed from the bureaucracy, we drive overland to the northeast corner of South Korea where we intend to catch a car ferry to Russia but it’s not quite as simple as that.
The ferry is full!
Across many borders
Smiling Korean faces are still etched in my mind as we face the Russian officialdom in the far eastern port town of Zarabino. After filling out a mile of paperwork, parting with a fair amount of our hard earned cash and being interrogated as to why we are in here, we head off across the cold, wet, dreary grey landscape, which is Russia.
Just how I’d imagined it would be!
We snake our way through hundreds of tiny villages across Eastern Russia, filled with many broken down cottages, abandoned buildings and peasants with colourful scarves, left to fend for themselves after the fall of the iron curtain.
“We camp on the edge of the magnificent Lake Baikal, one of the largest lakes on earth, and swim in her icy sapphire waters.”
At a locked border gate we’re jam packed into a bottleneck queue, with dozens of others trying to get into Mongolia.
After a light sleep under the watchful eye of the Russian spotlights, we squeeze through the narrow entry into Mongolia and begin to make our own tracks across the absolutely dynamic and vast steppe of Mongolia.
No fences, no bitumen, no roads, just tracks.
Hundreds of kilometres of vastness, thousands of goats and massive contrasts in weather from intense dust storms, blinding heat and teeth chattering icy conditions.
Back and forth we go
Mongolia is the jewel of my journey as we linger for seven weeks amidst the herders, their gers, the culture and simple lifestyle of these warm, friendly and very resilient people. As we leave Western Mongolia, lakes are freezing up and so are the water bottles ... inside the car!
Back into Russia, we both experience severe bouts of sickness and are “adopted” by a Russian couple who take us to their home and nurture us back to health with delicious dumplings and a hot banya (bathhouse).
Down into Kazakhstan, we drive for ten days at 15 to 25 kilometres per hour on a road that was built in hell.
Every day is filled with new experiences.
Back at the border into Russia we show our documents again and again ... over and over.
Stuck in a shipping compound in Russia, we wait for the ship to dock, which will take us across the Black Sea.
We build friendships with Polish, Turk and Armenian truck drivers.
“After a 3 day rocking and rolling, stormy crossing of the Black Sea, on a truck ferry with 25 smoking card playing truckies, we drive onto Bulgarian soil.”
Early winter is upon us and we are pushed to move on. It snows a lot!
Sharing the massive highways with horse drawn sulkies filled with Romani families and fast moving semi trailers in Romania, the contrast of old and new appears so stark.
In Hungary, we camp amongst windbreaks of golden leafed trees between fields in fallow.
On to Germany and “modern” Europe the pace of life speeds up unbelievably and we weave our way to our final destination, Switzerland. We wake to the Land Rover covered under a metre of snow overnight.
Reflections on the trip
I find joy in the many unique interactions with local folk in dusty, desolate towns of Eastern Siberia, with nomadic herders out on the vast steppe of Mongolia and so many people, in so many diverse cultures despite the “verbal” language barrier.
Living in a Land Rover with someone I’d only known for a few short months provides a pillowcase full of weird experiences.
This review is extracted from my book “Russian Documents, Mongolian Dust”. The book is raw, uncut and unique. It encompasses both the physical expedition and my own personal footprints. It is interlaced with heartfelt experiences, spiced with humour and tempered with joy as we learn to cope with the continual challenges of an unpredictable and unfamiliar environment.
The ebook is available from Smashwords: