Stage 1 – Ukraine, Russia & Kazakhstan: To The Altai Mountains [1/2]
It transpired that I would cross into the Former USSR, and thus begin the Odyssey proper, on the 6th June 2007. I had no idea of the immensity of the adventure I was embarking upon.
After a delayed start to my journey due to being robbed in Romania, my aim was to quickly leave Europe and drive into Siberia, heading for the beautiful Altai Mountains which I had first visited in China, four years ago. From Russian Altai I would cross into Kazakhstan and explore the southern side of the mountain range, before heading firmly south into Central Asia.
These initial weeks in Russia would be filled with experiences good and bad, but the problems I would face with corrupt authorities, my own lack of language skills, Russian bureaucracy, an ill-prepared vehicle, violently aggressive Tuvans and even a minor accident would be offset by the endless wild beauty of Russia, the warmth of the Russian people, and the immense feeling of freedom as I drove myself halfway across the world’s largest country.
It’s a sunny morning as I slip out of the east of Poland and into Ukraine. My first impression is of the contrast with Central Europe; bad roads, sprawling, idle farmland and cities of rusting moribund industry and doleful concrete apartment blocks. A general scene of dormancy and lassitude. I bypass the concrete suburbs of Lviv (which today I regard as one of the most beautiful cities of the Former USSR) and meander across the beautiful, though unexciting Ukrainian countryside, getting lost a couple of times on roads which are decent for a while, then degrade into a morass of broken asphalt and gravel. With nothing but a large-scale paper map I bumble rather cluelessly across the country, eventually near Zhytomyr finding a decent road which plunges in and out of clumps of pine forest as it courses its way east, ending up in Kyiv.
Kyiv comes as something of a shock; whilst the villages I have passed through during the day were shabby places of idle farmers, horsecarts and manure-heaps, the capital is modern, dynamic and outwardly prosperous. The traffic-choked streets are filled with a quantity of expensive, late-model SUVs which I have not seen anywhere else, aggressively driven by gangster-looking types. It takes me ninety minutes to reach my hostel in the district of Podil, and I spend the evening briefly looking around the city, impressed by its grandiose boulevards and (perhaps superficial) wealth. I would return to Kyiv in 2011 to make a more thorough exploration of the city.
I leave Kyiv in the morning, keen to enter Russia and cross the Urals into Siberia. The road leaves the outskirts of Kyiv, heading north-east past mostly unseen towns, slowly deteriorating as it nears the Russia border. The Ukrainian side of the border crossing is a mess; at first I find myself handing over $30 to a policeman after being found not to have Ukrainian motor insurance. Then I’m told that I’m missing a customs document by a beaming, gold-toothed customs officer, though I refuse to pay any bribe in this instance and eventually get through without a problem.
The Russian side of the border seems more efficient, and one of the customs officers even speaks some German, but I’m soon given a list of various official payments, followed by an unofficial one in order to keep the truck in Russia for more than fourteen days. I’m exhausted and feeling rather violated by the time I leave the border at around 22:00 in the twilight, only to be stopped on an empty road by two traffic police on the trumped-up charge of illegally overtaking. Forty minutes later I am sent away having paid nothing but the loose coins in my pocket.
I reach Oryol, my first city in Russia, after midnight, trying to find a hotel in which to register myself (a legal requirement for foreigners in Russia). I ask several people on the streets for directions, all of whom seem to be drunk, until eventually two friendly men, also drunk, jump into the truck to guide me. Driving slowly, I’m soon flagged by a furious police officer who, upon smelling alcohol in the car (from my passengers) screams at me to hand over my documents and orders me out of the car to have a breath-alcohol test, which to his surprise and perhaps disappointment I pass. When I finally reach the hotel, the receptionist, who obviously regards me as an idiot for not speaking Russian indicates that it is absolutely impossible to register and then sits silently waiting for me to leave.
At the end of this ordeal I am in a state of utter desolation. Just how is it possible for a country to be so thoroughly awful? Its citizens seem universally corrupt, greedy, unpleasant, dishonest, drunk and unhelpful. I retire for the night into a petrol station forecourt and prepare to sleep in the car. I contemplate leaving Russia. Enviously, I watch a stray dog gnawing a bone. Dogs don’t need to register, cross borders, pay bribes, get breathalysed…
Of course, this is a common experience for the newcomer to Russia, and one which Russians themselves sardonically name ‘Welcome to Russia’. My initial impressions would soon evaporate as I met kind, welcoming and spirited Russian people. I would learn how to deal with police (and never again pay a bribe on the entire trip), and indeed Russia has since become a country I really love, and the one which I have revisited most often.
I drive north to Moscow the following afternoon, entering the wild, furious traffic on the MKAD, the main Moscow ring road; five lanes of speeding vehicles where expensive Japanese and German cars, old Soviet marques and wheezing trucks all weave around various accidents and breakdowns, cutting across lanes at the last moment to reach an exit. Finding my exit, I plunge into the city centre and eventually manage to meet my host Masha, who invites me to a party at a friend’s apartment where I have a wonderful introduction to Russian hospitality; eating okroshka (a cold Russian soup), drinking beer and meeting various locals and travellers who are passing through. In the morning I jump on the Metro to take a quick look at the centre of Moscow; Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Tomb and GUM, the State Department Store; all huge, imposing buildings. I walk up over the Moskvoretskiy Bridge, turning west onto the right bank of the Moscow River from where there are fantastic views of the Kremlin, looking down to the elegant, gold-domed Church of Christ the Saviour.
I’m caught in traffic for several hours trying to leave Moscow in the afternoon, and contemplate the distances ahead. It will be around 1800 kilometres from here to the Urals, the notional Europe-Asia border, making me realise that countries such as Poland or Slovakia, often referred to as being in Eastern Europe, are very much in the centre. Novosibirsk, where I will drop down into the mountainous south of Siberia, is 3700 kilometres away, yet this is much less than half way across Russia; Magadan, the farthest city reachable by road is more than 10,000 kilometres away. Russia is an almost unimaginably large country.
Once past the traffic, Moscow’s sprawl soon merges into satellite towns, then transitions to rural Russia; villages amid mostly fallow fields and clumps of remnant birch or occasionally pine forest; a landscape unspectacular though subtly beautiful in its gentle variation. I pass Nizhny Novgorod at around sunset, continuing east into land which has been totally cleared of forest but today lies largely idle.
I reach Kazan the next day, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, a beautiful city centred (like many of Russia’s oldest cities) on a kremlin (fortress), built symbolically by a victorious Ivan the Terrible on the site of a former fortress of the Tatar Khanate of Kazan, whom he defeated in 1552. Today Kazan’s kremlin is dominated by the striking white and blue Kul-Sharif Mosque; modernist and slightly incongruous, and also one of Europe’s largest, though there is naturally also a reconstruction of Ivan’s Annunciation Cathedral, the original of which was destroyed by the Soviets in 1930. Nearby in a steep side-street I enter the beautiful Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral to witness my first Russian Orthodox ceremony; a swarthy priest in fine vestments and acolytes swinging thuribles of incense in front of a congregation of colourfully dressed old Russian women. In the side streets of the city centre, across the Volga River, I notice chaotic bazaars which together with the city’s partly Islamic identity give an air of being closer to Asia already.
The following day, driving ever east on the M5 Highway, I enter the Republic of Bashkortostan and see the land change slightly as I near the very first undulations of the Urals; ploughed fields of black earth, stands of birch forest and villages of colourful wooden houses. I reach the capital, Ufa at around midday and find the city to be fairly bland, though enjoy a peaceful moment in the city’s oldest mosque, which looks out onto the forest on the far side of the Belaya River. East of Ufa I climb into the Urals, crossing a pass of about seven hundred metres and unceremoniously entering Asia, the continent I will not leave for more than two and a half years. After a cold night sleeping in the truck, I pass the city of Chelyabinsk early in the morning, then turn north through a beautiful upland of reed-fringed lakes, reaching the city of Yekaterinburg in the afternoon. Yekaterinburg is a likeable place, notable for being the place where the last of the Russian Royal Family were murdered in 1917, and for being home to Boris Yeltsin; thus having played a crucial role both in the formation and destruction of the Soviet Union.
Setting off from Yekaterinburg I enter Siberia proper. Somehow I’d imagined that Siberia would be an endless expanse of pine forest, but here at least, on the Trans-Siberian Highway, the taiga (continuous, boreal forest) is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, the landscape of endless fallow fields with the occasional stand of birch trees is rather similar to European Russia; only the distances between cities goes from roughly three hundred to around five hundred kilometres, and the swarms of insects are even thicker and more voracious. I finally leave behind the cold-spell which has followed me since Kazan, and stop briefly in the city of Tyumen late in the evening. Tyumen is one of Siberia’s oldest cities and of great economic importance as an energy-industry hub, but it’s not long before the lure of the road sends me out again, on into a night which never gets fully dark. I sleep for just a few hours in the truck, then push on again, driving the whole day through the featureless, swampy Siberian lowlands, straight past the city of Omsk and on, then another few hours of sleep in the semi-darkness, windows wound up against the infuriating insect swarms, and finally, at around 15:00 the next day arriving in Novosibirsk, more than two full days since leaving Yekaterinburg and six days after leaving Moscow.
Novosibirsk is the largest city in Siberia and the third largest in Russia. Founded in the nineteenth century at the future site of a bridge across the Ob River on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the city is an island of civilisation amidst the endless lowlands of southern Siberia. I park freely on a main street in the very centre of the city, a revelation for someone coming from Western Europe, and soon meet my host, Pasha. Pasha and his wonderful parents are my first real introduction to the warmth and generosity of the Russian soul, and of wonderful Russian home-cooked food; the memory of the pork plov, (a Central Asian dish of meat, vegetables and rice) made by Pasha’s mother stays with me to this day. Pasha lives in a district known as Chemskoye, one of the ubiquitous, identical-looking concrete suburbs of rather imposing apartment blocks which one finds in every Russian city. Already however, I can begin to see the real beauty of these buildings; here is a warm and cosy apartment stuck out in the wastes of Siberia, with all modern conveniences. Soviet architecture is a triumph of human ambition and achievement over nature’s adversity.
I drive south out of Novosibirsk in the morning on the M52, stopping for a night in Barnaul and driving on to beautiful, mountain-flanked Lake Teletskoye, then doubling back to Gorno-Altaisk, the rather charmless capital of the Altai Republic. Here I struggle for more than a day with ridiculous Russian bureaucracy; first chasing my visa sponsor in Moscow for an introduction letter, then a local travel agent, all in order simply to register my presence here in the Altai Republic. South of Gorno-Altaisk the M52 becomes known as the Chuya Highway and winds up towards the Mongolian border through some of Russia’s most glorious scenery, making it in my opinion one of the world’s most beautiful roads. Green hills packed with Russian holiday-makers become low, craggy mountains interspersed by grassy, wild-flower-filled clearings as I progress southwards. Crossing the Semninsky Pass, the tourists disappear and the land starts to open up, with picturesque wooden villages of mostly Altai People, with stout, blocky, Mongolian-looking faces. At the top of the beautiful Chike Taman Pass, I stop and am soon joined by a minibus full of Altai People who rip strips of cloth from a rag and tie them onto an already heavily decorated birch bush, which they then circumambulate, gesturing towards the air. A couple of the men notice me and invite me to join them in eating hard sheep’s cheese and drinking toasts of vodka, but I gesture that I am driving and politely decline.
Beyond the pass the landscape becomes extremely beautiful; pristine and sparsely populated, dotted with ancient kurgans (barrows), menhirs (standing stones), and vaguely anthropomorphic balbals. Passing the ramshackle village of Kuray I enter the magnificent Kuray Steppe; a huge landscape of green grasslands backed by dark forests on the lower slopes of a range of snow-covered three-thousand metre sawtooth peaks; the archetypal Central Asian landscape I have been dreaming of seeing for years; one which makes all the ardours of the trip so far worthwhile. Still climbing, the road abruptly reaches drier, dark-red mountains and leaves behind the forests, entering the dry Chuya Steppe and soon after the wind-blown town of Kosh-Agach, the last of any size before the Mongolian border. In Kosh-Agach I must surmount more bureaucracy at the KPP, the Russian border patrol, where after a trip back down the M52 to the garrison at Aktash and dire warnings of lawlessness in western Tuva, I finally have the necessary border permit to allow me to make the rugged trip across the Western Sayan Mountains into the Republic of Tuva.
It’s early evening by the time I leave Kosh-Agach, having been told to follow a local driving a Russian UAZ 4×4 minibus along the same route into Tuva. I’m a little apprehensive; not only of the warnings from the border patrol, but of those in my guidebook, and also of Vadim, a Russian hitch-hiker I had met in Barnaul. All tell of unpredictable violence from drunks in western Tuva. Once out of Kosh-Agach and into the border zone, the UAZ soon rushes off along the rough tracks, out of sight, while I slowly take in the magnificent scenery as I leave Kokorya, the last settlement before the border with Tuva. A distant storm moves in from the south and as the sun is setting, a huge white cumulonimbus spreads across the deep blue sky. Darkness slowly approaches and I head for a clump of trees, hoping to keep a low profile. Not long after, a white Zhiguli car comes bumping along the track, and stops right next to me. Out of the car comes a family of people with kind, oriental features. The daughter, whom I reckon to be a little younger than myself even speaks a few words of English. They invite me to drive across a river and stay with them in their home.
The Svatov Family are Kazakhs, who live in the town in winter (when temperatures can drop below -40° C in these high, continental plateaus), and are currently on summer grazing grounds with their herd of several hundred sheep (and a few cows), living in a yurt, the ubiquitous Central Asian nomad’s tent whose design remains unchanged since the days of Chinggis Khan. Inside the yurt are carpets and distinctivly Kazakh felt textiles, and the unmistakable smell of nomadic life; of humans and animals, dairy products and meat. At first the smell is rather acrid, but I soon find myself adjusting to it, and would later consider it quite homely and reassuring. The family share dinner with me, which we eat together from a communal dish, and insist that I take one of only three beds in the yurt, which is wonderfully warm. Outside, the home is guarded by a ferocious wolf-killing dog which barks a warning when the occasional UAZ passes during the night. I couldn’t feel safer. It remains perhaps my greatest experience of spontaneous hospitality.
After a heartfelt farewell, I set off in the morning towards the the Buguzun Pass, which marks the Tuvan border. The scenery becomes ever-more spectacular as I climb; around me is fairytale mountain scenery with emerald grasslands, smoothly rounded hills, pristine, dark green pine forest and gleaming snowcapped mountains. The track is rough and I’m impressed by the truck as it clambers easily over rocks and through rivers. It is on this slow ascent that I meet my first Tuvan, a rough and dishevelled-looking man on horseback with wild, distant, emotionless eyes. After following me for a while he asks for a lift, suggesting that I tie his horse to the back of the truck. Obviously this is a ridiculous idea, and I decline and continue on my way. The view into Tuva from the Buguzun Pass is breathtaking; a huge, rippling plain of yellow grass backed by jagged, snow-flecked mountains extends as far as the eye can see towards the east. The track improves slightly after the pass, descending and passing a few small lakes. I stop at every opportunity to ask directions from the locals; at a grubby yurt where the children run away in panic at my approach and a mistrustful man simply points eastwards, and from three drunks who overtake me and jump out of their UAZ, one of whom urinates right next to me, while the others asks me for vodka.
My lasting impression of Tuvan people comes however from a UAZ which I stop near the town of Kyzyl-Khaya in order to ask directions. The driver is quite civil, but out jump three burly Tuvan youths with rough, barbaric faces. They grab me, demanding money and vodka. I manage to escape their grips and get in the car; one of them stands in front of the truck to stop me moving, but I push past. From the mirror I can see the driver attempting in vain to reign in the youths, just as one hurls a apple-sized rock, which strikes the truck on the front right wing.
On the swampy edge of Kyzyl-Khaya I wave at a man and woman out picking flowers and receive a smile and a returned wave; the only civil human interaction I would have with Tuvans. I drive straight through the town and up into the dry mountains where a thunderstorm strikes the nearby hills with pink bolts of lightning, then cross two passes with stunning views south into Mongolia. At times the washboarded track runs right along the barbed-wire fence marking the Mongolian border (which I stick a foot through in order to tread on Mongolian soil); beyond I can see patches of green grass dotted with white gers (nomad’s tents) and huge flocks of sheep.
I’m still on this bone-shaking road the next day when I hear a hissing sound coming from the truck. Worried that a slow radiator leak has worsened, I stop to walk around the car, relieved to find that it’s just a puncture. As I change the wheel however, I make a startling discovery; both my rear springs have broken leaves and the right-hand rear spring shackle is almost disconnected, with the shackle bolt loose and just a few turns from dropping off. I work swiftly, changing the wheel, then jacking up the truck and tightening the shackle back into place, terrified that Tuvans will arrive and see what they can get from me. Whilst doing this I can see a UAZ approaching, but mercifully it does not stop. Back on the road, I pass two crashed vehicles and one drunken Tuvan, his face slightly bloodied perhaps from the accident, or perhaps from subsequent fighting, leers into the truck cab asking for a lift back towards the last town. He has the now familiar cold, vacant eyes and look of malevolence and, despite his situation, I choose to drive on for my own safety.
By mid morning, with a sense of relief, I reach the asphalt of the Khandagayty to Chadan highway, which runs away from the Mongolian border region towards Tuva’s main west-east highway. In the junction town of Chadan I turn left towards Ak Dovurak, home to the world’s largest asbestos mine, in order to see a particularly fine nearby balbal, a moustachioed man-stone rising from the flat steppe, surrounded by votive offerings of food and alcohol, his head daubed with guano. Doubling back, I drive through glorious steppe, under huge, deep-blue skies streaked with cirrus cloud, passing Chadan and joining the deep-blue Yenisei shortly before reaching the small and slightly shabby Tuvan capital of Kyzyl.
I stop and visit a shop and am followed by a drunk asking for money; outside, I am followed down the street back to the truck by a different drunk. I try waving at a few Tuvans as I drive past them, but always I get the same vacant, emotionless stare. By this time however, I am indifferent: Tuva is a wretched place and I want nothing but to leave it. I have never been anywhere like this. On the edge of Kyzyl I get into a minor car accident, though the drunk Russian driver and his two friends are perfectly civil and friendly, and we resolve the matter quickly with a modest cash payment. On my third day in Tuva, I leave, feeling hugely relieved. Tuva is a stunningly beautiful place. I am sure there are plenty of decent, friendly Tuvans. I am sure Tuvans are largely the victims of circumstance, of Russian colonisation, collectivisation, economic marginalisation. Alcohol and poverty have clearly had a devastating effect on the Tuvan people. But they are by no means alone in this, and I can’t help feeling that, as much as I don’t like to use the term, I have come across perhaps the closest there is in this age to uncivilised people.
North of the Tuvan border I enter Krasnoyarsk Territory on the M54, the Usinsky Highway, and almost immediately the landscape changes from dry, rolling Central Asian steppe to thickly forested mountains and crystal-clear rivers. At one particularly scenic spot I walk up onto a hill next to the road, onto fragrant tundra and dwarf rhododendrons for a magnificent view of the sharp, horny peaks of the Ergaki Mountains, seen across a yawning emerald-green valley. Dropping down, the road enters more populated terrain, with villages of quaint, chocolate-box Siberian cottages, and by mid afternoon I enter Abakan, capital of the Republic of Khakassia. Unlike Tuva, Khakassia is heavily Russified, (which right now is no disappointment), and a wonderfully peaceful and relaxing place which I immediately enjoy. After some essential shopping, as I’m driving out of the city, I catch sight of the Yenisei River. It’s a warm summer evening and locals are sitting at the riverside grilling shahslik (skewered meat) and drinking beer. I pull up on the riverbank and after cooking some dinner, I walk into the river in only my underpants with a bar of soap and a loofah, and scrub off eight days of grime from the mountains. This moment reminds me of two things which I love about Russia and Russian people; firstly that simple pleasures such as sitting outside with friends around a fire in a beautiful setting on a warm evening can be freely enjoyed (a freedom unknown to most Western Europeans), and secondly that a gangly foreigner can bathe in the river right alongside someone’s barbecue, and not attract anything more than the odd glance. This is the Russia I love.
Refreshed bodily and spiritually, I head out onto the Khakass grasslands north of Abakan, turning onto a small side-road towards the mining town of Sorsk. At a given kilometre marker I pull off the highway, though as it is now dark, I decide to stop and camp for the night. Early the next morning I drive the last few kilometres to the magnificent site of Salbyk, a Scythian temple consisting of a square array of pink granite boulders, many elongate and placed upright, measuring up to eight metres in height arranged around a central, excavated kurgan. I’m deeply impressed that this structure has remained out here on this vast, remote plain since roughly the fourth century BCE, and am intrigued by the Scythians: people Herodotus was vaguely aware of, but who occupied the hinterlands of central Eurasia to a point many thousands of kilometres beyond what classical civilisation marked as the edge of the world. After walking alone around the ancient stones for perhaps an hour, I return to the M54, heading north towards Krasnoyarsk on a beautifully undulating road through the green grasslands of Khakassia, with the wide Yenisei River a few kilometres away to the east. On these empty grassy plains are hundreds of menhirs, barrows and numerous burial sites, suggesting that this was once a rich and highly cultured area.
Leaving Khakassia the road towards Krasnoyarsk finally enters the taiga, at last matching my pre-conceived notions of Siberia. In Krasnoyarsk I reach the easternmost point on this Russian trip, then drive west on the Trans-Siberian Highway through the mining cities of Kemerovo and Achinsk, reaching Novosibirsk the following afternoon. I stay three days with Pasha’s family, relaxing and eating good food, servicing the truck and ordering two new springs back in the UK. Then, the day before my Russian visa runs out, I make the final journey south, back on the M52 through Barnaul, then further to Rubtsovsk near the Kazakhstan border. After finding an ATM, I get lost on the city’s dark and potholed streets, and soon get flashed by the police. I expect a shakedown but instead they actually help me, kindly escorting me to the correct road out of town. Crossing the border beyond the village of Veseloyarsk the next day is simple, if lengthy, and thus ends my first encounter with Russia.
These first three weeks of the Odyssey were some of the most memorable of the entire trip, as I came up against the steep learning curve of travel in the Former USSR and began to really enjoy the amazing journey I had embarked upon, settling into my nomadic existence until, several months later, it would become my everyday lifestyle. For the following two-and-a-half years I would concentrate on Central and South Asia, a journey which would culminate in a long dreamed-of crossing of Afghanistan. After this, in early 2010 I would set my sights firmly on Russia again. For the moment however, the southern side of the Altai Mountains, and the huge, open steps of Kazakhstan lay ahead.