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A drive across Russia


Getting started

Driving across Russia was never on my list of "Things To Do." Now, after 8,000 kilometers and 15 days by car, it's on my list of "Things Never To Do Again."

Why did two Germans, two Russians, and myself, an American, team up for such an adventure? The trip originated with a German named Helge who needed to ship family belongings to his new home in the Mongolian capital of Ulan-Bator. A friend and fellow German named Volker wanted to import equipment for his dental practice in the Siberian city of Chita. Volker also planned to purchase three German passenger cars for resale in Russia to recoup the costs of the trip. Having recently relocated to Chita, I agreed to join as a driver, along with two locals, Sergei and Oleg.

Helge and Volker flew to Germany in early May. There they bought and loaded their trucks, and Volker additionally purchased two used BMWs and an Audi. Sergei, Oleg, and I waited for them at thePolish/Belarus border. "What happened to you?" we asked as they rolled into sight almost one week behind schedule. Both had lost considerable weight and more than one night's sleep. "You won't believe it," Volker said. "We had to repeatedly unload and reload each truck at border crossings. Officials even fined us for taking too long to fix a broken wheel." United at last, we set out across Russia.

The roads

My greatest surprise was that the trans-continental highway isn't a highway at all, but a narrow, two-lane road. Opposing traffic is separated by nothing but an occasional painted line down the center, with paved shoulders a rare luxury. Kamaz trucks, horse-drawn carts, motorcycles, passenger cars, and bicycles all compete for space. Daydreaming was impossible when passing a string of 18-wheelers while ascending a curving mountain road. Half-way through the first day I lost count of the near misses. By the second day I gazed with only mild interest at the numerous roadside grave markers.

Potholes the size of washbasins turned otherwise smooth roads into jarring obstacle courses. Livestock were rarely fenced in, forcing us to slow for cows, horses, goats, pigs, and the proverbial chickens crossing the road. Potholes and passing were not the only hazards of the highway; about 1,000 kilometers were unpaved, with the longest stretches running from Tyumen to Novosibirsk, and from Sayansk to Irkutsk. Drivers can avoid some sections by detouring through Kazakhstan. However, we bristled at the thought of more border checks with their endless delays and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, defiantly opting for the "rough rider" route.

As a result, we hauled the cars over roads layered with jagged rocks as large as tennis balls. The noise of stone against steel frequently punctuated (and twice punctured) our sense of well-being. The convoy collectively suffered three cracked oil pans, a leaking gas tank, a broken windshield, and two flat tires. Even mud took a turn at halting our progress. One of our 5-ton trucks bogged down on a particularly mucky 12% grade. Luckily, a tractor driver from a nearby work crew agreed to pull it free. Only one brief ten-kilometer stretch east of Angarsk met Western quality highway standards. Replete with streetlights, center divider, and flawlessly smooth asphalt, we savored the few minutes of driving pleasure.

Highway bandits

We had heard stories about the danger of such a drive. "Bandits will rob you and slash your tires," we were advised. "Some people," one acquaintance warned, "have simply disappeared along with their cars." Identifying highway bandits was an art in itself. Generally, any imported car carrying men with short haircuts and no female passengers was suspect. In fact, we were followed only twice, and each time without incident. All of our vehicles carried German plates-probably a protection. We theorized that bandits preferred to prey upon Russian nationals, whom the local militias felt little obligation to protect. Nevertheless, we were always cautious, avoiding conversations with strangers and sleeping in secluded wooded areas at night.

The GAI (Government Automobile Inspectors)

GAI-Russia's loose equivalent to the Highway Patrol-had checkpoints flanking virtually every town and village through which we passed. After the officers' initial disbelief at our multi-national caravan, they sometimes asked to change money, or for advice about their own imported cars at home. One particularly creative GAI squadron earned pocket money by triggering warning lights at a railroad crossing for long minutes, then issuing fines to any drivers bold enough-or bored enough-to finally proceed. Ostensibly commissioned to maintain law and order, the GAI were more of a nuisance than a force for justice.

End of the road

Our trip took 15 days, in part because our convoy included two heavily-laden trucks; passenger cars, however, can cover the same distance in half the time. If you are planning such a journey you might consider the following suggestions: 1) always travel in a group; 2) display foreign license plates; 3) detour through Kazakhstan to bypass bad roads; 4) carry a full complement of tools and spare parts; 5) pack plenty of food, water, and extra benzene canisters for long stretches between towns; 6) sleep in your car near GAI stations or in secluded areas off the main highway. (Fast food and motels have not made it out to Siberia yet.) Although the scenery in spring and summer is fantastic, this is not a relaxing tour. On the other hand, a drive across Russia may be a great experience for anyone with a little extra time and a sense of adventure.

Read two more articles about the author's adventures driving in Russia.
A golden highway , and
American meets Kalashnikov .
End of Article

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All Comments (38)

Showing 1 - 38 comments

Charles,

Can you imagine traviling this route by yourself from the US? A car, a person?

How do you cross from the US? From where?

Emily,

thanks for sharing your tips I was thinking about driving from Chile to Canada aproximately 8000 kms and was wondering how much time that would be, and your story gave me an Ideaa thank you!

Alex,

Ross - the furthest east you can drive in Russia is Magadan, and even then you have to drive on the "road of bones", which is only properly accessible in winter, when the rivers are frozen. As for getting across the Bering Strait, you might be able to get a ship from Anchorage to Magadan, but good luck with that! Also, your chevy is going to be sooo ruined lol

Kolli,

Hello Ross

Let me know if you have planned for the Trip, FL to Ireland. I'm interested to join ! You can email me at vkolli79@gmail.com

Kolli

maksam,

i am reading at the time when i already started my journy with 6 car on auto transporter truck , just got in poland border and in Belarus border they ask me about *Permit to drive* paper which i didnot had it they trun me around and gave me 3 hrs to be back to poland. right now i am scared looking for a driver who can compay me from poland to Bishkek Kyrgyzistan my email address is khancar@bell.net tks

Ross,

Hi, im thinking about buying a chevrolet camaro in Orlando in Florida, then driving it to Armagh in Northern Ireland!!!!!
This means driving it through the USA, Canada, Alaska, getting a ferry from Alaska to Russia, driving through Russia (very northeast tip to very west tip), through Belarus, Poland, Germany, France, getting a ferry from France to Ireland (Roscoff to Cork) and finally driving through Ireland to Armagh. This is a journey of over 15,500 miles!!!! However, i cant find directions through northeast part of Russia or northwest part of Alaska. Do these parts have roads and can i drive through them???? Also, is there a ferry between Alaska and Russia... if not how would i get a car from Alaska to Russia?
Please help me!!! i cant buy the car until i figure out a route!!!

Miraj,

hi!!
I am living in Finland originated from Bangladesh. As so many personnels in this conversation are more or less experienced in traveling long distance by car.
I am planning to make a travel by following the route Finland-Russia-China-India-Bangladesh.
If somebody can say if it is possible or any valuable suggestions...

Thank you ...

Paul,

I am from Laos, and living in the US. I would love to drive a car from France to Laos someday but I don't know if that is even possible. Any suggestions? Thanks!

theAMAZINGcool,

theAMAZINGcool has made a GLORIOUS RETURN !!!

john evans,

Read 'The Linger Longer: Driving the Trans Siberian'. Great book by two brothers who drove across Russian and Siberia in an old banger. Fantastic adventure. very funny.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Linger-Longer-Driving-Trans-Siberian-Ultimate/dp/0954884213/ref=sr_1_15?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272796124&sr=1-15

new mexican,

where would i begin if i wanted to make this drive for someone, as in the case in the article to where someone needed services as a driver?

rojo,

thers seem to be lot of interest in driving through alaska and the nto russia. I know ther eis no ferry.
theres is something called bering airways
which flies charter flights from alska to one of the bigger towns in far eastern russia

but with sufficent money and sufficient will we might just be able to pull this off

admin,

by all accounts we can find, there isno ferry service between Alaska and Russia. In fact there is very little by way of roads on either side.

Alam,

Dear
Nice to read about you. Can you please advise to go Russia from Canada by car through Alaska. I mean how can we cross the see between alaska and russia. Is there any ferry service.

With Thanks
Alam

Ekrem,

This is really amazing. I'm from Turkey and i live in the US New York. i really want to go to Turkey with my car. But i don't know how can i do that? is there any ferry service or something like that in Alaska?

juliandare@yahoo.co.,

You don't say anything about a carnet de passage - Is is necessary for Russia?
and how did you get a transit visa for more than ten days? and what about insurance? you dont' say anything about the procedures at the belorus border.please clarify

Runone,

I guess what surprises me is the simplicity of some postings. I plan to drive (from darkest) Africa across (big bad) Russia to (glorybe) Alaska. Hey what about actually checking out the net rather than just seeking advice and answers to silly questions?

I drove from London to Kazakhstan last summer and it was a breeze with the onlu delays being borded crossingss and you can bribe your way tothe front of the queue is you want to for USD50.

I encountered no dangers apart from a different driving culture - all the way the people were super friendly and helful.

Yes, the cops are happy to take 'commissions' = get used to it; it is no great expense - a few dollars that you can have fun negotiating - not many western places where you can have fun with the cops.

If you are going to do a trans Russian trip then search the web - you'll finds tons of info and may even end up sleping in a brothel, like I did, for want of anywhere else to bed down.

don,

Paul, from what I've heard traveling across Russia is quite an adventure and not without real risks. The Europe part should be very pleasant but the Russia part will be a real challenge. Heard that hospitality form Russians is great though.

Paul,

I'm thinking of either Cycling / Hitchhiking or a combination of the two to Vladivostok from London
from August.

Probably a crazy idea, but wonder if anyone's done it?

Jon by_jc,

I was thinking of driving from St Louis, MO (USA), up to Alaska, across Russia and into Europe. Final destination was Bristol, Great Britain....

So, what's chances...???

Admin,

John, look forward to your accounts of your trip to Russia. We're really curious about driving conditions there now, especially for foreigners.

john,

Hi All,

Plan a trip from london to South Russia this summer (last week of JunE) have flown by plane (too boring) these last 4 years (married to a russian) will give you all the run down.

wiki,

I am interested in driving from Russia to Alaska. Is the Bering Strait still in existence? Thx.

DK,

From what I hear, driving in Russia is tricky difficult. First, if you don't speak Russian it's difficult to get around and there are not as many facilities (gas stations, restaurants etc.) in rural areas as in Europe or North America. If you are a stranger and do not fit in there is a good chance you will be stopped by police and there may be difficulty. You need and International Driving Permit and you need to get it from an official source, not someplace that just prints one up for you.

There are some web sites that offer help and guidance for those not used to Russian traffic or roads. http://www.unclepasha.com/moscow_to_st-petersburg.htm might be good to try them. Also here's an intersting chat site http://www.waytorussia.net/TalkLounge/

dave,

i have a idea of traveling by way of motorbike to about 400 miles east of moscow for a trip to see a special girl, does any1 know what i will need and if you think it is possible .... i am very eager to do this and would really appreciate ANY feedback at all,(i am most concerned about Not being let across borders of different counrties) I am starting in london And ill be thru france and then the most direct route to moscow. Thank you to any1 who can give me an info dave

Boudecca,

Debarrio,

How long did your trip take? Any caveats?

Debarrio,

Drove from London to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) in an old battered Lada this summer and apart from a 200 km stretch between Kansk and Irkutsk the roads are pretty much ok. Even though it is pothole galore out there, a 4x4 is definately not required. Perhaps this become a different matter when driving to (or through) other parts of Siberia. My impression was that the Russians are improving their road system on a massive scale, so in a few years time there will probably be a highway from Moscow to Vladivostok. So, go now!

Faith,

Who cares.
you just basically wasted your time writting this.
retard.

Keith,

Im thinking of driving from Dubai to Alaska (home) in a Jeep wrangler. Any suggestions on a route?

mikael,

Hi an excellent story and full of usefull advice for the woodbe traveler to Russia. My question is this. I live in the UK and wish to take my own vehicle to St Petersburg, how will I achieve this harich - Gotenbourg Drive to Stockholm ferry to Helsinky them ferry to Riga and drive the rest of the way or is it possible to go a more direct route IE UK ferry to St Petersburg. any advice would be welcome, the intention of going there is to buy old metal toilet cisterns bring them back clean and polish them for re sale
regards
my email is mikael101@btinternet.com

katie,

Does anyone know links to find out more on the roads in russia. my friend and i want to bike through russia.

thanks

Dave,

Great stuff. I have heard the roads have improved a hell of a lot since this article was written (it's dated from 2000)

Admin,

Mike, we'll see what we can find on this

Mike,

I am planning a trip from to drive through Africa, then europe, Russia, china, then to travel up the mekong river, then back to europe and through Africa East coast) to get home. I have little info regarding how far North I can drive in Siberia, is it possible to reach Peverk etc by car during summer. Any idea as to what the roads are like up there... Any information will be greatly appreciated

James Brooks,

Hi Michael! I read about a stretch of highway near Irkutsk (quite possibly the one you mention near Angarsk) known locally as 'Eisenhower's Highway' because Khrushchev upgraded it (in anticipation) after Ike had expressed a wish to visit Lake Baikal. If memory serves, the visit didn't come to pass but the roadworks did, and the locals are apparently grateful to the US President to this day.

Admin,

Here's some suggested reading for your trip.
http://www.siberia.eclipse.co.uk/

erick,

i wana drive from alaska through russia to africa does anyone know any information if there is a ferry service from alaska to russia and how is russian driving are there any roads there from the far east russia anyone please let me know wingdc9@hotmail.com

Pat,

Sounds amazing. And great advice.


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