Russian bears and border crossings
The Amber Route Riders, St Petersberg, Russia.
The short version:
Arrived Samarkand 2 pm on July 4th , boxed bikes, packed van, created slideshow, went to Awards dinner, went to bed 1 am. Woke up 5am. Settled finances with local support, looked up route on google, downloaded Russia maps, talk to local driver who had driven the same route. Left Samarkand 1 pm on July 5th. Arrived St. Petersburg 3 pm on July 10th having crossed two borders and driven almost 5000 kms.
Day 1: Samarkand to Shymkent: 439 kms, 8 hrs (3 hrs stopped at border into Kazakhstan) Good Roads. Left at 1 pm. Slept in sheep pasture
Day 2: Shymkent to Aral: 967 kms, 16 hrs driving, 2.5 hrs stopped (for gas, food, being pulled over by cops etc…) Slept in desert.
Day 3: Aral to Oral: 1450 kms, 17 hrs. Started at 5 am. 2.5 hrs stopped. Slept in Desert. Some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, and some of the best.
Day 4: Oral, cross Russian Border, to Penza. 715 kms, 14hrs, 5 hrs stopped at Border. Slept at the Border for few hours, then slept in Hotel in Penza. (showers are a good thing)
Day 5: Penza to Moscow suburbs. 668 kms, 14 hrs. 4 hrs stuck in Moscow traffic. Slept in a log cabin.
Day 6: Moscow to St. Petersberg: 630 kms, 9hrs. 3 hrs stopped
Total Distance: 4869kms. Total Drive Time: 78 hours. Total stopped time: 41 hrs (including sleep).
Finished unpacking, cleaning, and repacking van at 1 am on July 10th. The inaugural Amber Route started 7 am on July 11th.
The long version:
The 2010 Silk Route ended with a short convoy into town so all the riders could cross the finish line together. We set up a small table with Champagne and snacks and a finish line banner. The group rolled in, all smiles and the Champagne was opened, and sprayed. The celebrations unfortunately had to be cut short because we only had a few hours to box all the bikes, pack the van for a 5000 km drive and then clean up and get to dinner. Sticky from the Champagne Erik had doused me with we pulled out the random cardboard boxes we had collected and began helping the riders pack their bikes. It was interesting to watch the riders pack their bikes. Everyone had their own approach. Malan was very traditional. His final product looked very much like a proper bike box. John’s box was triangular, Pat’s box was huge. Tirtsa’s box was white with black tape zig zagging all over it to hold it together. Erik’s bike was the smallest, though his bike was the biggest. It was a lot of work, sweating and getting dirty in the parking lot of the hotel but in a way it was a nice way to finish the tour, working together on a project. The awards dinner that night was simple and nice. We ate Uzbek Plov (rice with chicken) and soup and salad and more that a few glasses of wine and vodka. Erik presented a slideshow of the tour, as did I. It would have been nice if the dinner could have lasted longer but we all knew that Allison and I had to up early in the morning and start the long drive to St. Petersburg for the start of The Amber Route tour.
The first days drive was relatively uneventful. We did get pulled over for speeding (93 in an 80 km/hr zone) and had negotiate our fine down from $100 to $30. Thirty bucks was still way too much but we were in a but of a rush since the border closed at 8 pm. After I paid the fine the policeman was nice enough to tell me where the next radar traps were so I could avoid them. The border crossing took a couple of hours but was fairly simple. We got thru the Kazakhstan side just 30 minutes before the border would close. After a quick meal of Manti (dumplings) and salad we drove until just after dark and camped in a sheep pasture. Dark is really not the right word. It never really gets dark around here this time of year. The sun doesn’t “set” until 10 pm and even then the sky is quite light, similar to the natural light at dawn. It’s convenient when you have to drive 14hrs a day but it sure can throw your sleep cycle off.
The next day we intended to reach Actobe, about 1500 kms away. We left at 5 am and were hoping for good roads. But the roads were not so good and the Kazakh police seems to really enjoy pulling us over for a chat. We got pulled over a total of 5 times in Kazakhstan. Once for not using our headlights during the day, and 4 times for apparently no reason. But the police were friendly and we were never delayed more than 15 minutes. Usually the mention of the word “velosport” would elicit a smile and a nod of understanding and they would send us on our way. Perhaps this is because of Kazakstans sponsorship of the Astana team and Alex Vinokurov in the Tour d France. So we finished the day 600 kms short of our goal near the town of Aral at the northern edge of the Aral Sea, well known amongst environmentalists as one of the great environmental tradgedies of our time. Huge canals have been built to remove water from the Aral Sea for Irrigation. The Kara Kum canal, the largest in the world, in Turkmenistan gets its water from the Aral. The water level of the sea has dropped immensely and over irrigation in the region has cause the development of large salt pans that prevent further cultivation.
The next morning we woke early and started the drive to Actobe, hoping to cross the border late in the day. Only a few kilometers after Aral the road vitually disappeared. A road contruction detour sent us down a bumpy sand road into the desert. Dozens of roads criss crossed each other thru the sand. The roads we so rutted our Mercedes van did not have enough ground clearance to drive on them. We were sure we were lost and stopped to wait for someone to pass by so we could ask. After only a few minutes a small Toyota corolla appeared and the driver confirmed that we were on the right road to Actobe. He assure us the road improved after 50 kms. Averaging 10 kms/hr we plowed thru the dirt tracks for the next few hours until finally we came back to the road construction and onto a brand new highway. Our speed jumped to 120 kms/hr and we quickly reach Actobe and several hours later the border town of Oral. It had been a long and stressful day and we considered sleeping in Oral but the border crossing was a big unknown and we were not sure how long it would take to cross so we decided to cross that night and sleep somewhere on the Russian side of the border. This, as it would turn out, was our single biggest mistake of the trip.
The procedure for crossing borders in central Asia varies from country to country. Sometimes you can drive right up to the customs building, other times you have to wait outside the gate and give you documents to a soldier in a small booth who will then tell you when to drive in to the border area and go to customs. At the Kazakh, Russian border we pulled up to find a short line of cars waiting at the gate. I parked the car and asked Allsion to jump out and see if she could change our remaining Tenge into Russian Rubles. While waiting, the soldier in the little booth waved me over. I grabbed the vehicle documents and jumped out. While going over the documents and filling out the forms I heard a commotion behind me. I turned around to see a bunch of people shouting in Russian and pointing at our van. At first I didn’t realize what had happened . Everything looked normal but as I walked back to van I noticed the front bumper was in contact with the small Toyota in front of it. I assumed this large, drunk Russian, who was now yelling at me, had accidently backed into my van. “No problem I said, no damage”. A long stream of angry Russian syllables erupted from this large Russian and now he started poking me in the chest and pushing me. I walked around him to get to the van and he grabbed me. I threw his arm off me and yelled at him to calm down (not really a good idea). He was instantly in my face, yelling and threatening me with his anvil like fists. He was doing a very good job of scaring the shit out of me. I managed to get to the van and started it to back up. I reach for the emergency brake and realized it was not engaged. I must have forgotten to put it on my van must have rolled into his. Crap. I backed the van up and got out to inspect the rear bumper of the Toyota. No visible damage. I rubbed the dirt of the bumper and looked more closely, no damage. Relived I turned to the giant and apologized, idicating there was no damage and we should drop the whole thing. “MONEY!” Was his response. “No money”, I said, there is no damage. “MONEY, POLIZIA!” came the reply. I thought to myself ‘go ahead call the f’ing police you f’ing drunk neanderthal’. “100 DOLLARS” he yelled. Back and forth we went, him yelling 100 dollars and me smiling and saying no damage, I don’t have 100 dollars (which was actually true, I have $50 in my pocket in small bills to use a bribe money but I din’t have 100 dollars). He kept repeating the words polizia and I indicated that we were at a border and polizia were everywhere. “NYET, POLIZIA!” he yelled screwing up his face at me and pointing at himself. He then went into a long tirade that, judging by his body language, was meant to communicate to me that he would have me arrested and thrown into jail where I would be subjected to all manner of abuse by my fellow prisoners. I realized then that he was not threatening to call the police. He was the police. In fact he was a colonel in the Russian police and he was obviously very used to getting his way. So I decided to change my mind and give the guy his 100 DOLLARS! Allison happened to have a $100 bill in her purse which I handed over graciously. Taking the money the Russian Bear, as I now thought of him, screwed his face up again and pointed his thick finger at me in a violent thrust. Then he walked away. We let him drive thru first to give him some space and then drove up to customs.
Again at customs he tried to confront me but fortunately the border guards intervened and sent him away and drove away from Kazakh immigration and over to the Russian side. As we were filling out the customs forms a nice Kazakh officer who spoke English came over to me and introduced himself. Pointing to the direction the Russian Bear has just driven he said “he’s a very bad man”. “ I agree I said, and very drunk”. “He Russian Police, very bad” he repeated. “yeah” I replied. Then he said something that worried me. “You stay here, maybe until 2 am or 3 am. Then cross”. “Why” I asked. “He want to arrest you, he bad man”. Well this was a little disconcerting. “So I wait here, what if he waits too?” “No he drunk, he go home after maybe 2 or 3 hrs”. “Maybe it’s better I go back to Oral and come back tomorrow” I said, getting worried now. “No, only wait here till 2 am, he’ll be gone”. “are you sure?” “Maybe”.
So we parked the van in the neutral zone between countries and pitched out tents. I called the office to update them on the situation, drank a third of a bottle of vodka we had lying around the van and went to sleep. In the morning we crossed to the Russian side, a little tentative but things went very smoothly. No sign of the bear and the border guards didn’t give us a second glance.
Crossing the border the terrain changed. No longer were we driving thru the desert. No we were surround by grasslands, open steppe. Still there were no trees but the great field stretched as far as I could see. It was quite beautiful. We crossed many rivers and at almost every one there were half a dozen Russian me, stripped to their shorts, bathing in the water. Russian me apparently do not like wearing shirts after 9 am. Everywhere we went this seemed to be true. Old or young, skinny of fat, on duty or off duty the men of Russian take their shirts off as soon as the sun is high enough to warm the air. We drove that day to Penza, passing along the route several grand cemetaries where every grave was topped with a Mausoleum. From a distance this made the cemeteries look like small towns. They were quite spectacular. We arrive in the small town a Penza and decided to get a hotel and found a very nice place overlooking the central square where kids played on skateboards and BMX bikes and vendors hawked all kinds of street snacks and merchandise. The most popular restaurant around seemed to be the McDonalds. It was packed. I couldn’t resist and went and got a big mac and fries for dinner.
The next day we drove thru Moscow. The city itself was not that interesting, thought there were some beautiful buildings, but the traffic was epic. Eight roads enter the city, meeting in a ring road at the center. Every road has 6 to 8 lanes, all packed with cars driving at 80+ kms/hr. We whipped thru the city trying to decipher the signs in Cyrillc and get onto the M10 to St. Petersburg. After an hour of so of driving around the ring road and a few unsuccessful attempt to exit (hey kids, Big Ben.. Parliament…) we manage to head in the right direction only to quickly get bogged down in a traffic jam that eventually lasted for 22 kms. It took us 4 hours to get out of Moscow. With only 600 kms left to drive we decided to sleep and finish the drive in the morning.
The drive into St. Petersburg was uneventful and relatively quick. The city, in Contrast to Moscow, is well designed and traffic flowed smoothly. The architecture is terrific and large monuments adorn every roundabout and park. We drove by the winter palace and the Hermitage, one of the great museums of the world, and crossed the Neva river into Petrograd where our hotel was. Our arrival was greeted with applause, especially from the 4 Silk Route riders whose bikes we were carrying in the van. Then the van was emptied, cleaned (boy did it need it) and repacked and the next morning at 7 am we departed on the inaugural Amber Route, TdA’s first Dream Tour to become a reality.