Monthly Archives: August 2014

ARB Moscow

Like most who love their 4×4, I have always personalised my vehicles to suit my needs and I’m not at all shy in pushing ARB products.  I’ve been using their gear long enough to appreciate that it’s well designed, user friendly and high quality.

By the way, it should be stated that I’m not affiliated with them in any way other than the fact I’m Australian!

So when some months ago we were contacted by ARB Moscow and offered the use of their facilities should we require any assistance whilst on our journey, we responded with a definite “yes thanks” and we would be in touch.

We advised Dmitriy from ARB of our arrival in Moscow and 30 minutes later Dmitriy arrived at the RV Park, ready to escort us into their facilities for a look around! I was keen to use the workshop for a service and was in need of a replacement tyre! One of our Cooper ST Maxx’s had developed a large vertical split in the sidewall of unknown origin that was obviously spreading and fast becoming a candidate for a blow out. This is my third set of Coopers and the first to have any issues but I am aware of other Cooper tyres failing in the same way so I’ll keep an eye on them.

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

Cooper Tyre Kaput!!

It’s now early Thursday afternoon and hence I was thinking we were to have a look around ARB and meet the staff whilst organizing a time for me to perform a service. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

ARB Moscow

ARB Moscow

Following Dmitriy across the city to ARB made the drive much easier and upon arrival we were greeted by another Dmitriy whom is head of engineering.  The 2 Dmitriy’s had a conversation that eluded me and subsequently I handed over my keys to Dimitri number 2.  For the first time since leaving Australia I wasn’t in control of my Patrol!

It was brought in and placed on a hoist whilst I was being asked what oil I would like and is there anything else that requires attention? Well yes actually! I needed to adjust one of the rear coil spring rubbers and in addition to the aforementioned tyre, needed a rebalance of all the others as we had a consistent run of lost wheel weights.

Patrol being pampered

Patrol being pampered

Slowly the penny dropped! I wasn’t even going to get dirty; these guys were looking after everything. I couldn’t believe it!

ARB Mechanics

ARB Mechanics

Patrol being pampered!

Patrol being pampered!

Leaving the mechanics to it, we wandered upstairs and had a look at all of the products; it was a little like dejavu wandering around the showroom! Photo’s of Australian 4×4’s and the exact feel that an ARB store in Australia has! The obvious change from Latin to Cyrillic the only real give away that we were on the other side of the globe.

ARB Showroom

ARB Showroom

ARB Cafe

ARB Cafe

After a look around we were directed to the in store ARB café overlooking the showroom and would you believe, treated to a 4-course meal prepared by an actual chef! Patrol being serviced we spend our time chatting with Dmitriy and enjoying a range of sensational food, does it get any better? I learnt here that ARB were also doing specific products to suit the Russian market, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but I hadn’t really thought about it.

Apparently the local market was keen for ARB to produce an air locker to suit their old faithful, the UAZ, and ARB responded by doing just that! I think that’s fantastic, no doubt an expensive exercise for the company but to me that shows commitment to your consumer!

During our time in the café we were fortunate to meet the CEO from ARB Moscow and express our gratitude for all they were doing for us! We really felt like royalty.

ARB Staff and us

ARB Moscow

Dmitriy number 2 arrives at our table; service complete, spring rubber re-seated, wheels balanced and our new tire will arrive tomorrow! Just too efficient!

We truly cannot express our gratitude to ARB Moscow strongly enough. Not only did we have someone to assist us when we were really at the mercy of a language barrier but also an organization that knows what we required and bent over backwards to assist.  But wait, there’s more….

The following morning saw us arrive at the Metro for our first visit to Red Square and the Kremlin, but we weren’t going alone! Dmitriy #1 met us at the Metro and was now our personal Moscow guide.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

Red Square, St Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin were to be our first points of interest. Just sensational to be standing in Red Square in front of such iconic buildings!

St Basil's Cathedral

St Basil’s Cathedral

Us in Red Square!

Us in Red Square!

 

Kremlin Cathedral Spires

Kremlin Cathedral Spires

More Red Square

More Red Square

The whole experience was made even more memorable by the guidance provided by Dmitriy whose knowledge of the city and warm persona were again characteristic of the warm Russian welcome that was again being lavished upon us!

Ugly Wedding Cars in Red Square

Ugly Wedding Cars in Red Square

A visit to the Armoury at the Kremlin was an amazing experience, it’s easy to quickly become museummed out, so to speak, but the collection available here for your perusal is truly phenomenal, if you visit Moscow then include it on your itinerary!

As with any experience revolving around good company, the day was quickly dissipating and as the evening loomed, we met up with Dmitriy’s partner Nadya who was just lovely.  After a fantastic meal in central Moscow we wandered along the Moskva River and looked at too many sights to list.

Nice Shot thanks to Nadya!

Nice Shot thanks to Nadya!

Moskva River

Moskva River

Love Locks!

Love Locks!

Late in the evening, we walked into a little bar and with the easy flow of conversation filling the air, we all managed to slightly over indulge! We all had a wonderful time and that was easily expressed by the fact that we fell into a cab at somewhere between 3 and 4am for the trip back the campground!

Drinking with friends

Drinking with friends

Late Night!

Late Night!

Half a dozen Danish RV’s were now on site but I was a little underwhelmed with the 24 hour security as we crashed our way to the camper in the darkness without challenge! Anyway that’s another story!

Surprisingly fit and able the following day albeit arising quite late(proves practice is important!) we checked out before again being met by Dmitriy and led back to ARB where we picked up our replacement tyre.

From there we headed to the VVC Exhibition Centre and parked the vehicle before heading into the amazing landscaped grounds, which contain a multitude of pavilions from Soviet times.  Each one was used to display the achievements of the soviet states and we wandered amongst the incredible fountains and generally had a lazy day enjoying the sun and fresh air.

Soyuz Rocket Display

Soyuz Rocket Display at VVC Centre

VVC Park Fountains

VVC Park Fountains

VVC Centre Fountains

VVC Centre Fountains

The Russians made some really strange vehicles!!

The Russians made some really strange vehicles!!

We’d been invited to spend the night at Dmitriy #2’s Dacha (weekender), an invitation that had to be accepted!  Again following Dmitriy we headed southeast around the MKAD ring road and about an hour later saw us in lovely forest around a fire with beer in hand. (Dmitriy’s beer! It seems whatever we arrive with we also leave with! Russian hospitality!)

Dmitriy's Dacha

Dmitriy’s Dacha

Our Parking Spot

Our Parking Spot

The cat who came to visit

The cat who came to visit

We met Dmitriy #2’s wife Julia and over the time we spent there found her always smiling face to be intoxicating, she is just one of those lovely people!

Dmitriy and Julia

Dmitriy and Julia

There were 17 people at the house that weekend; apparently that’s a regular occurrence! The previous night with Dmitriy #1 had seen us wind up at around 4am, now I’m in the company of Dmitriy #1 and #2 and it was going take some stamina!

Jen managed to slide off to bed unnoticed and the rest of us must have had some great discussions as it was a 5am finish this time! What’s happening to me??

A sleep in was required and enjoyed, we wasted the day sitting around chatting and drinking coffee before heading off late in the afternoon to take some photo’s of the Patrol for Dmitriy. As a press attaché he will be putting together an article on our travels.

Photo Shoot

Photo ShootPhoto Shoot

We’d originally planned to leave Moscow that afternoon but time had gotten away from us as we’d been enjoying ourselves way too much, I asked Dmitriy #2 if it would be OK to spend another night and leave in the morning? His response was – I have a full fridge! That made me smile.

Most of the 17 weekend inhabitants had, at this point, departed as it was Sunday and work called.  That meant an earlier night of about 1:30am !!!! Oh those Russians!!!!

Busy night for international relations

Busy night for international relations

Again we had trouble saying goodbye in the morning, I’ve had family members do less for me than these people who were mere strangers a few days ago!  Words fail me.

Dmitriy and Julia spend a lot of their time travelling and being like minded, had given us some great advice on travel destinations and varying routes.  It would seem our plans really are fluid as we are being strongly drawn in new directions. You will have to stay tuned and see where we end up!

Russian Driving

Russian Driving

We parked up just outside the MKAD ring road and caught the Metro back into Moscow central.  We just wanted to have another wander around Red Square and soak it up a little more!

The whole area was fenced off as it would seem there had been a parade of some sort over the weekend.  Lucky we’d visited previously as that would have spoilt the experience.

Wandering into the famous and very expensive shopping plaza, GUM, which runs along the side of Red Square, we were intrigued to see a queue of around 40m in length terminating at a small shopping stall in the middle of the Plaza. There were large TV style cameras and people sporting microphones, we thought it was possibly an appearance by some one rather famous or a book signing or the like!

When close enough I was a little lost for words, Putin certainly has strong support here and I was left in no doubt just how popular! The queue of people were attempting to purchase there own T-shirt sporting a characterized Putin in different settings such as wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting the caption “greetings from Crimea!” Make your own judgment on that one.

Greetings from Crimea!

Greetings from Crimea!

Putin

Putin

Once we’d had enough we departed toward Volgograd and after around 100km found a camp along a forestry track. Definitely an early night!

The next few days saw us visit towns such as Rostov and Yaroslav before turning West at Volgograd for St Petersburg. It’s always nice to arrive in a city and see the sights but it’s also exhilarating to wander the countryside.  Finding hidden bush camps in such foreign lands is a challenge that I thoroughly enjoy!

Rostov

Rostov

Jen located an RV park to the west of St Petersburg and that suited our needs perfectly.  Sat-Nav loaded we departed the ring road and arrived at the park located on the gulf of Finland! It was the first time we’d seen ocean water in 23000km and the sight and smell was nothing short of tantalizing. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy living by the sea!

Baltic PARKind

Baltic PARKing

Baltic PARKing

Baltic PARKing

The park was a little unusual, basically a car park next to a Government Conference center. Showers and amenities were inside the main building and were absolutely first class, whilst a restaurant occupied the second level. All of the staff were super friendly and more than keen to be of assistance.

It was easy to pick a spot as we were the only residents! Wandering in to the restaurant for dinner was interesting – a flashy affair exuding fine dining and silver service and once again we were the only inhabitants. It was actually quite simple food such as shashlik with ketchup and we couldn’t quite work out the silver service connection to the meal! Anyway it was tasty and I didn’t have to prepare it.

Russian hospitality was again about to burst forth in all its splendor! Ivan and his wife Natalia had contacted us via email after a mutual connection with Vitali and Galena whom had looked after us way back in Khabarovsk! Ivan had offered us an apartment in St Petersburg – can you believe that!! Anyway we’d ended up staying at the campground as it was a little easier with the Patrol and saved any unpacking and finding secure parking.

Now on Ivan’s home turf we were to be treated to a tour of this amazing city once again by strangers soon to become friends.  But first we would meet for dinner the following evening.

Bus and Metro delivered us to down town St Petersburg and we spent the day trying to take it all in, an impossible feat.  It has to be said that St Petersburg’s Metro is an artistic gem with Avtovo station the highlight.  The city itself is magnificent, home to the Hierarchy in times gone and absolutely no expense has been spared in making sure it fulfilled all of their desires. Today it’s a masterpiece of architecture and a plethora of tourists.

Avtovo Metro Station

Avtovo Metro Station

Church of our Savior on Spilt Blood

Church of our Savior on Spilt Blood

IMG_3967

Hermitage

Hermitage

We really have slipped from expedition mode into tourist mode quite suddenly!

Evening approached and we met Ivan and Natalia. Easy conversation ensued and we soon found ourselves submitting to Ivan’s charms as he ordered a host of tasty treats! The restaurant even had a resident piglet that was walked around on a lead!! The evening rapidly slipped away and we found ourselves back in the camper at around 11:30pm totally satisfied and with tentative plans for the next day.

Wasting the morning in the relentless pursuit of chores we eventually made our way back into the city and met Ivan and Natalia.  A boat cruise of the local canal’s and waterways was the plan and we were fortunate again to be in the company of such knowledgeable locals. The tour that Ivan found for us to enjoy was not even worth comparing to the brochures and information we had, it was fantastic and about an hour after setting sail, had an extra 1000 photo’s to sort through!

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

Beautiful Bridge Support

Beautiful Bridge Support

Dinner at Zoom café, number 1 on Trip Advisor was quirky and really Kruto!!

We’d been treated to another wonderful day and were now being chauffeured back to the camp ground.

Arriving at the campground we were excited to see 2 RV’s parked near us. We had some company!  Those who know us will realise we’d generally avoid crowds for the solitude of the bush but in this case we were hoping for a conversation in English. After months of struggling with language you really do long for an easy chat!

Ivan and Natalia had a look over our little home and after another round of goodbyes they departed, more people that we can’t thank enough for their hospitality! Hope to repay them one day when they visit us in Perth…. Thanks guys!!

Us, Ivan and Natalia

Us, Ivan and Natalia

So 2 RV’s were parked along side us. One with English plates. The closer of the 2 whilst proudly sporting Netherland plates was however occupied by Tom and Pam from Brisbane!

Tom & Pam

Tom & Pam

Tom & Pam's Camper

Tom & Pam’s Camper

What were the odds of that, 4 and a half months on the road from Vladivostok and our neighbour’s in St Petersburg are Aussies! We could once again sport our own version of the Kings English along with all of the slang and sarcasm that we love to use.

Apparently a similar reaction had occurred in their cab as they realized our vehicle was Australian registered!

Purchasing their motorhome in Holland, these intrepid travellers had spent a couple of stints of around 6 months each touring Europe and were on their last leg and heading via Moscow back to Holland were the already sold RV was to meet it’s new owners! These guys had some serious travel destinations ticked off and a long list of locations still to pursue. A couple of nights in their company and we departed St Petersburg, once again with a lot less red wine than we’d arrived with!  Great people to meet and hope to see them again.

An uneventful run to the border and a large queue met our gaze as we approached the crossing into Estonia, Jen tried to obtain compulsory third party European insurance here but was met with cold disdain from the Russian working the insurance booth and so we gave up for the moment.

Border Queue

Border Queue

Fortunately the line was reasonably fast moving and around an hour saw as at the front! It rapidly slowed down for us at that point as all manner of confusion broke out amongst the border control staff as to how to process us. They thought our vehicle registration document was fake and we moved the vehicle off to one side and waited around an hour for them to confirm the validity of our registration. Why they thought we’d drive from Vladivostok via all the other countries and try and cross into Estonia with fake rego is beyond me but whatever!

Finally we were free to go! Yay….  We headed into the Town of Narva as we’d been told where we could buy the compulsory third party insurance for Europe. Fortunately it’s only about 1km from the border, long story short and neither of the 2 companies would sell us insurance! Now we had a problem.

In the end we gave up for the day as it was nearly 8pm and made our way north and found a bush camp a few km’s from the town. We had to get insurance immediately and discussed our options!

Another Cat Visitor

Another Cat Visitor

 

The following morning we headed back into town and found some WiFi.  We emailed the Dutch company, Alessie, whom we knew would provide Green Card insurance and asked for a quote along with also emailing the head office of one of the previously approached insurers in an effort to find out if they could insure us?

Of course this was all going to take time and we would also need to provide digital signatures and the like to the Dutch company before we would have a valid printable policy.

It was all getting really tricky so we parked the Patrol about 500m from the border where we’d previously crossed and went in on foot.  After explaining the situation they were astonished on 2 points! Firstly, we shouldn’t have been let out of border control without the required TPL insurance and secondly that the local companies were refusing to cover us.

Anyway upon realising that we had tried to obtain the TPL insurance on the Russian side without success, because the sales woman couldn’t be bothered dealing with foreigners, and again tried in town before returning to the border they had quickly decided we were doing the right thing and did all they could to assist us.

They couldn’t understand why the local companies were refusing however!

We returned the vehicle to the border control area and they organised a one month policy for us, which they did with great efficiency and we were on our way.

Narva

Narva

Narva Fortress

Narva Fortress

Ivangorod Fortress

Ivangorod Fortress

IMG_4192

A few days later and we had a response from the local companies main management saying there was no problem and they would be more than happy to take our money, just go into a local office! Work that out…. The Dutch company by contrast responded within hours…

Estonia, what a change! How is it possible to cross a river and enter another country and it be so different.  We loved our time in Estonia and especially enjoyed the city of Tallinn. I had no expectations of this country and hence found it all the more enjoyable.

Tallinn

Tallinn

Tallinn

Tallinn

Tallian Bastion Walls

Tallian Bastion Walls

No problem finding free camping, driving through quaint little town after quaint little town filled with the ruins of medieval forts along with lovely café’s amongst forest settings! We really are tourists now…

Padise Klooster

Padise Klooster

After a few days we headed south toward Latvia and our first border crossing that only required us to drive across and keep going, I can’t tell you how nice that was after 10 very and at times invasive crossings that actually totalled 19 border experiences. When you leave one country you have to enter the next so it’s always twice the fun!!

Estonia Latvia Border

Estonia Latvia Border

Latvia proved just as enjoyable to the eye as Estonia. We stayed true to our likes and, where we could, travelled the back roads. Again the smattering of ruined castles persisted and the scenery remained stunning. One night’s camp saw us deep in a National Park where there were a few locals camped.  Upon running into one of the locals whilst walking along a river, he asked how we had found this place? He’d lived in Latvia for 37 years and had only just discovered it! To say he was amazed to see our foreign Patrol would be an understatement.

Cesis Castle

Cesis Castle

South and into Lithuania, not much time spent here as it was continual rain and the terrain had flattened. We ended up crossing this tiny county in something like 4 hours. It was late in the day when we crossed into Poland and it took some effort finding a campsite.  After being told by one obnoxious local that there were no free camps in Poland we managed to find one about 500m from where we’d received that gem of information!

As we’ve travelled south from Estonia there is an obvious regression back to the more Russian style of driving, in Estonia it is very ordered and more like you’d expect in Western Europe! There is a general slide in the quality of infrastructure and the like as well, I don’t want to talk it down it’s just that it’s obvious that there is more money in the north!

We decided not to bother with a visit to Warsaw, instead heading for Krakow. The further south we travel, the previous slide in quality of infrastructure and the like has halted and once again things are on the up! We are now in an RV park in Krakow and again seeing quizzical looks on faces as they see our number plates and try and work our where we are from. We even have people taking photo’s of our vehicle through the nearest fence!

The following should make you laugh!

Our clothes storage area was looking rather spartan when we reached Moscow, every piece of clothing we owned was sporting some sort of erroneous smell generally combined with a stain of some sort.  We had worn everything we had available to the point of it being rather feral! So finally in the campground in Moscow we had an opportunity to wash some clothes and advantage of the washing machine we took!

Now with all our clothing soaking wet as tumble dryers seem to have slipped off the requirement list for RV parks we strung numerous ropes around our camper and hung everything out to dry in the nice sunny conditions!!

We’d been doing the odd hand wash along the way but you never really get that clean feeling do you? As for Laundromats, it would seem they just don’t have them in Russia!

So with everything hanging out to dry we headed off for our initial meeting with ARB in Moscow.  Following was pretty much 3 solid days of rain and our clothes never even came close to drying! So when we left we were back to a few basics that we were able to dry along with what resembled a wet dog in a rubbish bag!

St Petersburg included a nice session of thunderstorms everyday we were there and so didn’t prove to be our clothing savior.  I had actually bought some new clothes at this point! I can’t stand that wet dog smell..

With enough to get us through to our friend Terry’s house in Slovakia in a couple of weeks, we decided that was the easiest option. We would avail him of his washing machine and all would be good!

Arriving in Krakow yesterday we were greeted with warm and sunny blue skies, something we’ve not seen for a while. So sunny in fact that we decided to do all the washing here so as not to bother having to use Terry’s machine.  We hung it out yesterday afternoon whilst wearing shorts and T’s and during the night the clear skies gave way to solid cloud and it’s rained pretty much ever since!

This could be Noah's Ark!!!

This could be Noah’s Ark!!!

There is really something weird going on with the weather and us!!

 

Uzbek Super Dog

Emir B&B in Samarkand ticked all the boxes for us with a great location that provided us easy access to the City’s treats. Meeting other travellers here was a real bonus for us as we generally only have each other to converse with.  The opportunity to chat to others about their travels has become an experience that we relish when it presents!

Uzbek Bread

Uzbek Bread

Shah-i-Zinda

Shah-i-Zinda

Registan

Registan

 

Emir B&B

Emir B&B

Emir B&B

Emir B&B

We crossed paths here with an American family on an Uzbekistan holiday and we couldn’t help but laugh when they recalled the reactions they had received from friends at home upon telling them their intended travel destination. – One comment was “why do you want to go to a country you can’t pronounce the name of and is at war?”….

Fellow travellers from the US

Fellow travellers from the US

We shared dinner with the Americans at a local outdoor restaurant and, due to being sold out of most other things, an Uzbek Super Dog was the favoured meal choice.  Whilst looking for all intents and purposes like a true American hot dog in the pictures, it actually consisted of a pita bread pocket filled with carrot, egg, and a frankfurt along with a litre of ketchup! More ketchup was brought to the table just in case we didn’t have enough and it was an interesting take on the classic.

Obtaining a tasty alcoholic beverage, however, proved challenging as Ramadan was still in progress, but Jen came into her own and obtained the required beverages on the sly from a restaurant! For a minute it looked like a dry night and we couldn’t have that, could we??!!

It was fantastic to meet such well-travelled people with the most amazing stories that pretty much covered the globe – Africa to China and everything in between!

On the road and we eventually reached Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.  A bit of a nightmare navigating our way in as none of the major roads are marked with any sort of street names and incorrect information from the local police didn’t help, but eventually we found Hotel Safar and, with pop star parking, we settled in.  We had dinner across the road from the hotel at El Cascada, which was expensive by Uzbek standards but seemed an easy option! A late start the next day as we enjoyed chatting with the consistent stream of locals peering inside the camper as we prepared to leave! We were in a really nice part of the city and surrounded by some lovely homes. Uzbekistan to my eye appears to be quite affluent as compared to other “stans” – the usual mixture of mud brick homes in the country areas but the cities are very modern!

I can’t really describe the driving skills here – chaotic and idiotic might be a start but we are becoming more than used to the style now and that makes it a lot easier!

We departed for the border crossing at Chernyaevka and after an hour we arrived only to find we couldn’t cross at the location shown on all the maps and many websites as it was for foot traffic only! (or so we were told by locals)  A little confused we were directed by locals to a vehicle border crossing and with a friendly local leading the way we soon arrived at the border.

However, we couldn’t cross here either, as this one was only for locals and would have to travel back 60km south of Tashkent to make the crossing! Somewhat confused and frustrated at this point, and feeling like idiots as we pride ourselves on preparedness, we checked our information and according to our info the first crossing we were trying to use had been open for 3 years and was currently active! Anyway it’s hard to argue with border control so south we headed. It was all a little stressful as diesel is very difficult to obtain in Uzbekistan and, as such, I had planned our route taking this into account.  Due to this border fiasco, we ended up over running our expected driving distance by 200km!

Eventually the Yallama border crossing appeared and proved reasonably efficient – the usual non-existent instructions or signage but plenty of helpful people who assisted us through.  4 hours evaporated by the time we found ourselves back in Kazakhstan!

We took on diesel only 10km from the border along with all of the trucks departing Uzbekistan and to say I was relieved to fuel up would be a real understatement! North to a dodgy campsite on someone’s paddock and then on to Shymkent we headed.  A resupply and we settled in for a couple of thousand km driving that was really to be only a transit for us.

Story cd’s playing, we continued north but you have to register your visa within 5 days of crossing the border so the pressure was on for us to make it to Russia!

We briefly stopped in Turkistan for a look at the Yasaui Mausoleum, which despite being unfinished due to Timur’s untimely death back in 1405, was quite spectacular with a 2000kg cauldron for holy water as the centerpiece.

Yasaui Mausoleum

Yasaui Mausoleum

Yasaui Mausoleum

Yasaui Mausoleum

Yasaui Mausoleum

Yasaui Mausoleum

2000kg Cauldron

2000kg Cauldron

Clocking up the hours driving with the associated km’s meant that meeting 2 Italian overland vehicles on their way south provide a nice break from the road! On a whirlwind trip from Italy, they were heading to Uzbekistan and then home so with maps spread we swapped stories and contact details before once again hitting the road. We hope to enjoy the offer of delicious spaghetti with them once we make it to Italy!

Italians!

Italians!

Baikonur Cosmodrome came into view and we idled along the road for a while with binoculars and zoom lenses trying to see what we could see! You can only gain access to the site via a few select tour agencies, only if there is a launch and only after parting with a large quantity of cash and even then it seems somewhat difficult to organize! Apparently there is an amazing museum of space travel and Yuri Gagarin paraphernalia on site but access is prohibited.  Quite sad really! The Italians had sent letters 8 months in advance to the Russian Government to try to arrange access to the museum only, but to no avail!

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome

The Kennedy Space Centre in the US has tours and the like and really gets you involved and wanting to buy souvenirs and spend your money whilst here our only interaction with anything to do with the cosmos was the Police questioning us whilst we parked outside the main gate for a photo opportunity, very welcoming! They certainly do things differently here!

No point hanging around and so it was on to the next destination, Aralsk – the site of the once blue and fish stocked waters of the Aral sea before the rivers and source of it’s life blood were diverted to grow thirsty cotton in the incredibly arid Uzbek landscape. Clever move that one! Anyway, if your interested just Google it and have a read, what a disaster!  We eventually found the site where some fishing boats have been put on display giving a glimpse into a life that seems could never have existed when you look around this desolate and somewhat depressing place! Fortunately for us however we were able to locate an immigration police office and an hour or so of waiting patiently saw our visas registered and with that the pressure to make the border was removed! A good thing too as it was looking like an all night drive to make it and I really wasn’t looking forward to that even with our sensational lighting.

Aralsk harbour

Aralsk harbour

Aralsk Fishing Fleet

Aralsk Fishing Fleet

2 more days slid by as we traversed more and more modern large towns with obvious Russian influence. We did pass a convoy of around 12 motorhomes with European plates heading the other way and couldn’t get a wave out of any of them! I think they were too fixated on sticking with the group to look sideways!

Russia Kazakh Border

Russia Kazakh Border

We finally arrived at the border and said our goodbyes to Kazakhstan, we’d only been stopped twice more by the police and then only one suggested we were speeding, so all in all it had been a smooth transit. One and half hours and we were back on Russian soil and heading for a rendezvous with some local Russians who were friends of friends back in Perth! Little did we know that we were once again about to be soaked in Russian hospitality and would look back on the next few days with amazement and fantastic memories whilst adding another group of Russians to our list of best friends that we sincerely hope to see again!

Maxim, Olga, Sasha and Sasha (long story) along with their friend Sasha, his son Vladimir and father Peter along with a few more extended family members made us feel like royalty.

Our wonderful Russian Friends

Our wonderful Russian Friends

Justin and Peter

Justin and Peter

The American icon of McDonalds also made more than a few appearances as we reached the larger Russian towns although it looked a little different!!

McDonalds

McDonalds

Just outside of Tolyatti city, Maxim and family met us on the side of the road and guided us into the city and to their friend Peter’s fantastic house that was to be our home for the next couple of nights. Russians seem to do hospitality at a level that leaves most other nationalities well and truly in their wake! Chai (Tea) served on arrival and then a fantastic summer soup of fresh seasonal greens mixed with Kvass (a local drink) and sour cream, which might all sound unusual but was very refreshing.

Kvass Soup

Kvass Soup

Peter has a Russian Banya (like a sauna) in his back yard and an invite to a traditional Russian bath wasn’t going to be passed up!  We’d been in the car pretty solid the last few days and Maxim had played it perfectly in suggesting the experience! A serious amount of body cleansing was in order and it was provided!

Russian Banya

Russian Banya

An exercise in male bonding including being smacked with birch leaves was a truly relaxing experience and one I feel fortunate to have enjoyed. I was able to enjoy this Russian tradition in a private banya in a Russian home whilst being made so welcome that I’ll never forget it.

Jen had her banya experience after the male bonding session and together we emerged freshly birch leafed and refreshed!

Wandering into the backyard and Peter’s son Sasha was hard at work preparing shashlik and trout for dinner – this was just too good!

Justin, Sasha and Peter

Justin, Sasha and Peter

Later in the evening whilst the throng of people were trying to sort Jen’s Internet connection out, Peter grabbed me and suggested we head to the neighbour’s for a little drink! This particular day is a celebration here in Russia – I’ll call it Para-trooper day. You see flags being carried all over the place along with beret wearing locals sporting very red faces after having consumed more than a couple of drinks.  Arriving at the neighbour’s, I was greeted by a two Russian navy lads, one the size of a battleship on his own, who were refining their shooting skills by lining up apples and shooting them with an air rifle on the picket fence! Clad in blue and white striped shirts and berets, they certainly looked the part!

So here I am in backyard Russia eating shashlik and toasting with the locals whilst communicating in a language none of us understand and all the while having a truly fantastic experience!

Maxim and family took on the role of tour guides the following day and from mid morning until well after dark we were treated to a tour of there locality, from restaurants and museums to walking in the forest before meeting some of their friends and whiling away the evening in great company.

A wonderful day and the bar was again set higher. Maxim’s son Sasha who said he couldn’t speak English earlier in the day through shyness, was actually quite adept and treated us to some lessons in Russian over the course of the afternoon! I came away with my new favourite word – kruto, which means “cool” in English!

The morning arrived and with it Maxim and family.  We needed to arrange a new Russian third party insurance policy for the Patrol and looking back on the experience, without Maxim, I think it may have been almost impossible.

Goodbyes were said and with a truly heavy heart we departed Peter’s house, it had been a true respite from the rigors of travel and we could have easily stayed! A supermarket restock and lunch with Maxim, Olga and sons and we were on our way to Moscow!

Peter's House

Peter’s House

A couple of hours on the road and we found a great campsite on the Volga river.  It took a little snooping but it was definitely worth it. We could easily have spent a couple of nights here but the capital was calling and beyond it we hope to make Slovakia to meet a friend, which requires us to get a move on!  So on we travel whilst trying not to become a hood ornament for a road train. You can count the legs on the dead insects on the grills of the trucks that tailgate you!  How close must that make them?

View from Camp

View from Camp

Volga River Camp

Volga River Camp

Another nights camp on a relatively disused track some 4km off the highway and we are 460km from Moscow!  The next day was a long one and the traffic on the M5 got heavier and heavier.  We arrived at the newly located Sokolniki campground, which is just north east of central Moscow at around 7:30pm, and were greeted by a very confused security guard. After a phone call to the park manager he finally let us in.  It was great to be parked and out of the peak hour rush and we celebrated arriving in this great city with nibbles and drinks. As the only residents of the recently re-opened camp ground we enjoyed a quiet night of relaxation.

Sokolniki Camp

Sokolniki Camp