Doing the world’s longest cross country trip – The unplanned way!
“There are trips. There are travels and then there are experiences” #wise_quote#being_mba
Heads up, this isn’t going to be a makemytrip Russian Rendevous 7 days/ 6 Nights blog (with dubai free). This is about how we ended up doing a 30 day road trip across the largest country in the world (fun fact: Russia is TWICE the size of US!), what we saw there, what we did not see and finally how we managed to pull something like this off with ZERO preparation (ZILCH, NULL, THULLU)
It all started with a facebook update that I read one fine morning sitting over the commode going through the affairs of the world, as all men do. Ajay (my junior from engineering college) posted this from Transnestriya (an unrecognized country!). Ajay is a traveller. Not the kinds who answer marriage proposal question of “Whats your hobby?” with “I like to travel” but the kinds who go out and do epic shit (single ladies may please take notice ). This was his facebook status
Innnnnnnteresting. Russia? Like communism and kremlin and …. communism. But one month?? So there is Moscow, Saint Peteresburg and … ?? Aren’t they 8 on the rude scale (1 being dalai lama and 10 being parisians)?! Hmmm. Let me ask Ajay. Quick chat and some google searches later, I was convinced. Convinced that I know nothing about this country and it has to be explored So it began.
Turned out the visa process is easiest I had came across (infact, it is so easy, you are more likely to get a Russian visa in a day than table in Gujrati restaurant on Sunday). Garima (my wife), soon came on board. Visa – check.
The plan was pretty simple … #start of dream sequence#
a whole lot of countryside
#end of dream sequence#
or the way google maps would put it
Car – This is a big country. Long roads. The rental car services must be great! WRONG. As wrong as believing good camera equals great photographer (subtle hint: check)! We had to try five different web portals, only one of which got us an Avis booking from Moscow (not St. Peteresburg) to Khabarovsk (not Vladivostok). The relocation fees was 3 times the rental fee. Bye bye luxury hotels, hello hostels and apartments
btw, here is our car. Oh and heads up again, almost all the pictures in this post are shot from my faithful samsung galaxy s5
(Hyundai Solaris. 5 seater, 3 big bags in boot, 14 kmpl, top speed of 180 kmph, auto transmission. 0 to 100 in 7 … sometimes 10 seconds :D)
Flights - Aeroflot turned out to be the best (read – cheapest) option. I checked up aeroflot reviews online and everyone of them was horrendous, every single one. Great! At least, we know for sure that service will be bad :D. Flights – check
sidenote: Aeroflot turned out to be a pretty nice experience. We missed our connecting flight to Moscow and in 15 minutes, they put us on to the next. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, except this blog
Hotel/Hostel – We wanted to keep the plan flexible (read – we were too damn lazy to the bookings). So the only place we booked our stay for was Saint Petersburg. More often than not we were booking hotel/apartment while we were driving. So … no fixed itinerary and no prior bookings whatsoever (try it, its better than a fully planned trip).
Take off. 2 flights, one missed connection and 16 hours later, we found ourselves in Sunny Saint Petersburg. We stayed at Nevsky Prospekt (think 5th Ave or Piccadilly) in a hostel. Quick shower, discussion with the hostel staff and ready to go. We step down and lo and behold – tourists! Swarms of them. Chinese. Middle aged chinese. Middle aged chinese who travel in groups. Ajay started getting into Hulk mode but soon calmed down after three plates of Georgian food. Trip to Megaphone store, local sim card (LTE baby!) and vasco-de-gama mode on.
On the first look, Saint Petersburg looks exactly like Paris plus the broad roads minus the attitude. In fact, Tsar Peter the Great (founder of the city) was actually very influenced from Amsterdam, Venice and Paris before he built this city. St Petersburg is clean, people are chic, food is tasty and of course, Chinese tourists! We roamed around for the rest of the day before finally making a pit stop at cafe which served – KALYAN.
sidenote: What the world calls Hukka/Sheesha, the russians call Kalyan. Nothing beats a hard day of doing nothing than a well made Hukka served at 11:00 in night over a three hour sunset (summer days, northern hemisphere :D)
Language: While spoken Russian can be tricky, turned out written was pretty easy to grasp. Their script is called Cryllic and most of the words have similar sounding/easy to comprehend counter-parts in english. Derivations are easy too. Coffee is Kafe, Automobile (car) is Machina and so on. My list of top five phrases to learn in any foreign language and their Russian translation
Which way to the toilet? – Tuvalet
How much? – Schkolka Ruble?
Too much! – *Just do the sideways Indian headnod, very convincing*
Hello/Bye – Grastutye/Dosvidaniya
I can’t understand, do you speak English? – Ne ponimayo, Aangliesky?
That plus google translate got us through the entire trip! Google translate is awesome, you can point at a poster and it’ll translate it for you, it will speak out the translated stuff for you, it will freaking make coffee for you! (ok, may not there yet but you get the idea). In some sense we were lucky that Ajay spent a month learning Russian so gas station stops and locating hotels was easy. However, I feel that anyone with zero knowledge of Russian can still sail through this trip just fine.
Drug dealer’s coffee
The next two days in St Petersburg were spent watching a ballet show at Mariinsky theater (where we went highly under-dressed), a city boat cruise in which the guide was so boring that we slept … on a moving boat, going to their local museum, standing in queues alongside … you guessed it, chinese tourists
One of the dining room Catherine’s palace. They tried to be subtle with this one
Mid night strolls around Saint Petersburg
Ballet at Mariinsky Theater
More gold than an Indian wedding
sidenote: Summer holiday concept in Russia is exactly like Summer holidays in India. The whole nation is on a migratory run. Trains are packed, hotels are booked out and there are tourists everywhere (local and foreign). Make sure you book St. Petersburg and Moscow leg of travel in advance and buy the passes/tickets online to everywhere you go. Also be prepared, the Chinese WILL GET AHEAD OF YOU!
Next up was the train ride to Moscow. We were expecting the trains to be a glorified version of Shatabdi at best (best in class Indian train) and the dreaded Kanyakumari express at worst. It turned out to be the former. Clean coaches, comfortable bedding and (surprise surprise) running on time. Suresh Prabhu (indian railway minister), please take note
For those who booked the Makemytrip Russian Rendezvous 2015, Moscow is full on value for money. It has the Kremlin (photo!), it has more Russian looking buildings (photos!), it has Indian restaurants, malls (for those ‘day at leisure’) and other Indian tourist (who have booked through Kesari Travels and Thomas Cook, so you can exchange notes).
However, there is Moscow underneath Moscow. Its awesome and its called the Moscow metro.
We spent two and a half hours touring the metro. How much did it cost? Two 50 ruble tickets! I had downloaded a (free) audio guide before hand, plug in the GPS and we were on our own in the most breathtaking labyrinth in the world. Needless to say, this was the best 50 rubles we spent in our entire trip. Later part of the evening was spent at Pushkin restaurant. Russian ambiance, classic dishes and amazing hospitality. You will be doing a criminal offense if you do not visit Pushkin when in Moscow. Enough said
sidenote: Food in Russia – It is important to understand that Russia isn’t ‘one country’ but an amalgamation of many. The western borders are close to Norway and the eastern borders are beyond Toyko!! The food habits change accordingly. Expect a lot of western european and ex-soviet style food in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kazan. Then its mostly mixed with mongol and/or Uzbek influence. Towards the east is more Japanese/Korean. The main cuisine of Russia however is …. Italian :)) Expect to find a decent pizza place everywhere. Vegetarians, embrace potato, jain vegetarians pack those theplas (Indian snack) and other on even more strict routines – carry maagi. oh wait, now you can’t
This is what you get when you order Chicken Pasta with vegetables. Pasta … with vegetables …. hmph … never mind
Another very interesting concept we came across in Moscow was ‘Free Tours’. Its like a normal walking tour by a professional guide, albeit … free! You can tip if you want to. Our guide Elena was awesome. She even cracked some communist jokes (in hushed voice).
sidenote: People in Russia – Here is what I presumed most Russian men and women will look like
The truth ..
Russian women are drop dead gorgeous. In fact, our guide explained the scientific reason behind this. Under the communist regime, a lot of russian men died participating in the wars. At one point, the national sex ratio was skewed as much as 65/35. The women had no option but to attract the best men, hence they started to take care of how they looked. The ones that were pretty got selected and gave birth to pretty offsprings and the trend continued. Hmmm. Now all that is needed is time machine Otherwise, when in Russia don’t expect too much small talk. Also, they aren’t humorous either, infact, here is one of the only known man who does laughs on Russian jokes
That said, everywhere we went people were helpful. Not the Indian kind of let-me-take-you-to-my-home-and-feed-you-oh-foreigner helpful but more like the-toilet-is-that-way-but-do-not-ask-me-again kind of helpful. We did however stayed at some amazing homestays which I will highly recommend. We left moscow and headed eastwards for Kazan.
sidenote: Roads: In our research, the condition of Trans-Siberian highway sounded comparable to customer service of Aeroflot. We were again in for a surprise. In the 12,000 odd kilometers we drove at least 95% of the road was above average/excellent. We drove in a Hyundai Solaris which isn’t the most idle vehicle for road trip (low clearance, no 4×4, no cruise control, relatively short fuel tank) but it was more than sufficient. The highways have ample gas stations, some of which offer food options, most of which comes straight from an episode of Man vs Wild.
I would advice against using the gas station toilets though. I mean, don’t trust a toilet that looks like this.
On the plus side … its free to use
Next up was Kazan. We stayed in an apartment close to Baumen street and that is where all the action was. Kazan Kremlin was pretty unique and also became our designated evening walk area.
Temple of all religions (and lot of colors!)
Baumen Street, Kazan
Further east. Kungur. We chose to take a pit stop at Kungur and check out the ice caves there. What became equally memorable was our homestay experience. Kungur is a small town in the middle of nowhere and has only one hotel which was booked out (to be fair, we were only making our booking as we traveled). Our homestay’s owner’s name was Olga. Olga was the Russian version of Reema Lago. She fed us, she shared stories with us, insisted that Ajay should atleast eat eggs for his health and even gave us home made cookies as we departed.
The dumb charade ladies (Garima and Olga aunty)
Ice caves in Kungur
Lost and found
By this time, we had started reading a bit more about the Altai mountains. While Altai was initially out of our plan (because it was a 2000km detour) we approached the problem very scientifically – “chal na, jo hoga dekha jaaega” (lets go, we’ll figure it out later) Turned out to be the best decision of the trip. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We wanted to go all the way to the mongolia border. One of the waitresses at a hotel suggested that we go to Kosh-Agach (the last village before border), she has a ‘friend’ there who will ‘help us out’. Of course, what can go wrong with that plan. We ended up in the village with no trace of that ‘friend’, with no restaurants or cafe in sight and with the weather increasingly deteriorating. Fortunately, we found the russian equivalent of a ‘sarai’ and were fortunate enough to find three beds there. The next day made all that effort completely worth it
On the top of our game
Chasing god rays
Next day on the road. Cruising at 120 kmph on a 70 kmph road … spotify playlist, potato chips ….lo and behold … police.
sidenote: Russian Police - The standard appearance of Russian police vs the american police is this
in comparison indian police officers be like …
So on a useless scale, Russian police should rank somewhere in between Indian and American *glitter in the eye, there is corruption .. err.. hope* We decided to up the ante. As soon as we rolled down the window, our faces went from well informed road trip drivers to this
The cop would ask for documents and we would keep smiling and nodding our heads. Sometimes they’d ask for our international driving license which was in English. At that time, the cop had the option of reading a document in English or letting it be, the choice was simple. This trick worked out fine for two/three times. Later we started receiving automated speeding mails (with picture of the number plate et al) and are still receiving the same as I write this blog. Speeding fine btw is 500 rubles.
Over the days our journey took us to Kransnoyask and Irkutsk until we finally arrived at Lake Baikal. The largest fresh water lake in the world also happens to host the longest queues in the world. We booked our stay at an Island in the middle of the lake and the only way to reach was via a ferry. All reviews online would tell you how unexplored and virgin the island is until you show up at the damn ferry terminal. Turns out the whole of Russia (including and not limited to chinese tourists) shows up in the summer months to camp in the island. We remember arriving at 2:30 in the afternoon and finally getting on the ferry at 9! Moral of the story: read up before you queue up
Olkhon was worth all the queues though. It is as close as you can get to the flavour of rural life in Russia. Our homestay owner had some pet siberian huskies and samoyeds that she allowed us to take for a walk. We drove through plateaus and plains that ended at the shore of a lake that is nothing short of an inland sea. We gazed upon the stars till our eyes could locate the milky way and we when time finally came to leave the island, we showed up in the first batch of the returning ferry
Panoramic views of the lake beach
Buddhist connection – prayer flags on top of remote hills
Ajay flew in a small two seater plane
We walked the dogs of our homestay’s owner
Our journey continues eastwards with stops back at Irktusk, Ulan Ude and Chita. We stopped in the middle of the highway to shoot god’s fingers, we saw a buddhist monestary in siberia, we drove through the smoke of a forest fire, we almost ran out of fuel and arranged for towing, we searched for Kalyan in the middle of the night and finally did something very special.
Everyday, we were driving approximately 800 to 900 kilometers. That required 9 to 10 hours of driving and it was (satisfactorily) tiring. When we started from the city of Chita, our aim was to find a village by nightfall that could serve as a pitstop (there are no big cities between Chita and Khabarovsk). Instead, quarter of a way down the trip, I suggested “why stay in a village, lets push it to Khabarovsk!” Now we were talking 2000 kilometers without a stop. Pit stop at gas station, few extra supplies (aka choclate bars and chips) and we are on. Half way through the trip, we are searching for hotels in Khabarovsk and Ajay isn’t liking the options. “Why stop, lets go to our last destination instead?”. Vladivostok was another 800 kilometers ahead, making it a total of 2900 kilometers non stop. We agreed in unison, I guess by now we had adopted to the motto of “Screw it, lets do it”. 33 hours, 8 fuel stops, 10 toilet breaks and 2 time zones later, we arrived at Vladivostok. There was a sense of achievement in this which I can’t quite explain. We were not trying to set any records, neither were we in a hurry but the fact that for a period of 33 hours the road was our HOME felt satisfying. I guess this is what road trips are about
We stayed in Vladivostok for four days (instead of the originally planned two). It was apt that we ended the trip there because there was a sense of calm in Vladi that was unmatched. Maybe it was the city, maybe it was the fact that we were concluded this journey .. we couldn’t care less.
One of the last pictures that we clicked … aptly so
I write this blog because memory fades. I write this because very soon I’ll forget where all we went and what all we saw and all I’ll remember (or like to remember) is these small little experiences. I write this because I feel that Russia is an amazing country and Russians are normal people, just like you and me. So wherever in the world you are, drop the inhibitions, kill the prototypes and come live the journey yourself. I’ll be happy to help you in planning (and save you a makemytrip trip :D)
Oh, I almost forgot to mention what we didn’t see. We didn’t see Kamchatka peninsula, we didn’t see the deepest place on earth, we didn’t see the life at artic circle, we didn’t see Baikal freeze up, we didn’t see how the local live in the winters, what the people think of the world outside. We didn’t see their deep into their lives and be one amongst them, if only for a short while. After all, we had to save up something for the next trip to Russia
Russia in numbers
Russia in numbers – 12991 kilometers (trip meter reset after 10000), 157 hours (trip meter reset after 100), 26 Oblasts (districts), 7 Time zones
Filled Under : travel