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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Sunday Travel Section: Oh, Those Russians

A group of drivers traveling in rally convoy across the globe chanced into Russia this past June, and came face-to-face with Russia in all its horror. The Star Online reports (hat tip -- reader "Ron Raygun"):

My new co-driver Haizam and I spend the whole day at the Moscow workshop – thank goodness we have a contact here through the Moscow ambassador to Malaysia who introduced us to his friend, Sergei, who has an auto parts distribution business.

We have discovered it is particularly important in Russia to “have contacts” to get things sorted.

I get up at 5am to see my wife Pin off to the airport in one of Moscow’s legendary illegal taxis – she is flying to St Petersburg to meet us there the next day. As it is Haizam’s first day driving, we leave early. Also, we don’t want to run the risk of our car breaking down, always a possibility after a day in the workshop!

Although we were all in a convoy and navigation is fairly easy, many cars go astray outside the major ring road outside Moscow. However, the main road leading to St Petersburg is typically Russian – some parts of it good, some patchy, many badly potholed. Haizam gets the feel of driving Custard Tart fairly quickly – the characteristics of an older car that isn’t 100% with its steering wheel play and poor brakes is difficult to get used to.

One of the high points of our long 700km drive from Moscow to St Petersburg is our stop at the BP station – one of two foreign oil companies allowed to operate in Russia. We are thrilled to find a mini-mart selling snacks, smiling staff and clean toilets! This is rare in Russia, and we feel momentarily as if we are in (western) Europe!

We finally get into St Petersburg where we see magnificent large buildings and traffic choking the roads. After hours of being stuck in the rush hour, we inch our way to our hotel – an inevitable Soviet-era monstrosity on the outskirts of town, but at least this one has its casino and “ladies” entertainment out of sight! We quickly shower and escape to meet Pin downtown at a charming Georgian restaurant for dinner.


St Petersburg must rate as one of the most charming cities in the world – a tiny place linked by canals and rivers, and entirely “walkable”. It is even prettier in summer, when it enjoys “white nights” all season. No darkness at all, the city comes alive with the opera, live concerts and ballets in courtyards. Haizam, Pin and I do a walking tour of some of the older quarters where we meander through alleyways past iron statues of old Russian leaders and sample local delicacies at food markets with a young Russian tour guide who is saving up money to go to America. We even see a stunning mosque in the middle of town, amidst period cathedrals – amazing that these have managed to survive the wars. As our car gave no trouble the day before, we are confident we are able to take a break and spend the whole day out. I have borscht, a traditional Russian soup, for lunch. It seems as if daylight will never end.

We nonetheless go back to the car to check that it is OK in preparation for tomorrow’s drive to Talinn, Estonia, and fortunately nothing has come loose or needs repair. When we meet Pin for dinner later at her hotel in front of the majestic St Isacc’s Cathedral, we discover Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his wife, Jeanne, are staying there – on honeymoon we are told. The whole street outside had been cordoned off, with security detail milling about the lobby. There must have been around 20 cars with black windows outside. Clearly the Russian government is being careful with security.


Our routine starts at 5am as we do final checks and head towards the Estonian border. Unsurprisingly, we drive for miles on horrible potholed roads and in light rain. The Russian traffic police are everywhere and having an absolute field days stopping rally drivers for all sorts of reasons – from not having the right papers or stamps in passports to unexplained “offences” which need on-the-spot settling of fines of US$100-US$400 (RM350 -RM 1,400) per car.

Although we are lucky, we feel it is totally unscrupulous and the whole business leaves us a very sour taste of Russian life. Some of our fellow drivers are charged ridiculous amounts of money for minor offences. It is a real shame that unscrupulous locals are allowed to interfere with us, seemingly in connivance with the Rally’s local logistics company.

Upon our arrival at the Russian-Estonian border, the situation gets worse. All the promised expedited exits from Russia do not materialise. Two immigration officers laboriously check each car’s documents and driver’s passports in between their lunch and tea breaks. We are lucky – we only wait five hours. Some of our fellow drivers waited almost 10 hours for their papers to be processed.

By the time we entered Estonia – connected to Russia by a bridge – we are ready to celebrate freedom. Being in Russia has been an experience we want to quickly forget, especially the corruption, inefficiencies and badly maintained roads.

Estonia is very pretty. Green hills, proper roads and smart petrol stations line the streets. There is also a general air of liveliness and freedom, and none of the oppressiveness that we felt in Russia. Then we realise that Estonia is a member of the European Union. What a difference to general standards this made.

Although we have missed the day’s time trials, we head towards Talinn, surrounded by a historic square, a wonderful church and hundreds of curious onlookers! We park in a multi-storey car park that reminds us of Malaysia – and spend the evening at a local karaoke with young Estonians with smiling, happy faces.

What a change from Russia this is.

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