...on into Russia

Sunday, July 30, 2006
What a day, it starts the third part of this tour with the ferry crossing to Estonia. The check-in time as the 11:30 a.m. which means more or less the total day is lost. So I prepared to leave the motor camp by dumping the water, filling up with freshwater, cleaning the toilet, and I was on my way following the GPS to the port. I was too early so I waited in the car park until it was time for getting in line, I was second in line, but it was 45 minutes after they started loading before it was my call.

As quite a procedure loading this large ferry as there are cars, motorhomes, buses, trucks, and articulated trailers traveling alone.

It is very interesting with the articulated trailers as there are four of them with the name "Baltic Clean" a laundry company, located in Tallinn that evidently has the laundry contract for a lot of hotels throughout Scandinavia. These were full size articulated trailers obviously packed with hotel laundry and just one of them alone would take one hell of a lot of towels. It's interesting how an economy with lower costs can service a neighbour with higher costs. I wonder how long it will last.

It was a three-hour crossing and the ferry was packed with what appeared to be daytrippers, it was certainly a lot of duty-free grog being purchased.

Eventually it was time to go to the van, and wait my turn for unloading, it appeared as if the line I was in was the last to leave. Once on dry land at the decision to go left or right I chose right, but I ended up being wrong, but I did find an ATM machine so got some local currency, did some shopping for supplies and then headed back in the opposite direction stopping at a gas station to fill up with diesel and get the attendant to mark on the map where I was. All the diesel was NZ$1.84 which is the best priced yet and I guess that make it better across the border.

The motor camp was underneath the large TV tower built in 1980 and it is an example of Soviet engineering. Now one would think such a large edifice would be easy to find, but first it is not on a high hill, and as a lot of the roads have high trees close to them it disappears for large periods of time, and as I have no GPS maps for this part of the tour I ended up going round in large circles until I found another landmark on the map which I had passed 20 minutes earlier that finally put me on the right road for the tower.

I arrived at this very small motor camp with little cabins for travelers, the Soviet version of western motels. Six of the tour party had arrived almost using up all the space so I quickly took one of the few remaining spaces and then introduced myself to a group of four people sitting in the sunshine. One of the four Germans could speak English, and later when I met a larger group there are at least four English speakers amongst them. So it would appear that I do not have too "Sprecher Der Deutsch" which is rather fortunate for me.

Monday, July 31, 2006
This morning I went to the top of the TV tower, fortunately there was an elevator to take me to the top of 23rd floor. They had half of the top portion split off as a restaurant that you could still wander through it looking out the windows. It is a wonderful view everywhere and it is said that on a clear day you can see Finland. I took the 17 mm zoom lens with me so I would guess I got most of the view.

After that I packed the computer into a cloth bag and caught a bus into the city, found an Internet cafe, they unplugged one of their computers so I could go online and I was able to send e-mails with no problems so I'm not quite sure what problems are at other locations.

Back to the camp ground and checked the e-mail about the tour and I find that whilst I expected to be traveling tomorrow, it is in actual fact the last day for people to arrive and we leave the following day.

A couple of Australians have just arrived, they travelled from Korea across Russia on two motorbikes. They tell me that have no problems with people on the way and the Russians on the other side of the Urals mountains are extremely friendly and pleased to see you. They rode their motorbikes away from Vladivostok, I ask them what the road was like on the first part of the journey, the reply was what road? They said the road consisted of rocks about 10 to 15 cm in size. They said it was heavy going on the motorbike, but with a car or motorhome would be easier but slow.

Today is the day that the last people arrive, they had so much interest in this tour that they are running a second one that leaves three or four days after us.

Probably 25% of the people on this tour have been to New Zealand, and about 50% speak English.

There was the first group meeting tonight at 6 p.m., I of course did not understand the word of it and worked on the principle that it was important that would talk to me in English.

It will be rather interesting driving the first few days by myself because it would appear that it is a two-person job one navigating and the other driving. They discussed in long length the order of the convoy and that the last minute they remembered they have not included me so I got the space second to last, following a truck that has been converted into a motorhome so it is very large in size and should be able to be seen easily.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006
It was a 6 a.m. start and everybody was in their vans, some out on the road, by 5:55 a.m. and right on the dot of 6 a.m. the convoy moved off everybody in their right order. It was about a three and half hour drive to the border and as we drove up to the border we started passing trucks on the side of the road and they stretched back about four kilometres. I was told that the trucks take up to seven days to go through the border.

Konsta (our Russian guide who also speaks English and German) has prepared us for a wait at the border of up to 10 hours.

At 3 p.m. we drove off it was at that point of time I discovered we had been merely in a holding area and the border was actually 4 to 5 kilometres away. About 30 minutes later we went through the Estonian border control and then we sat on a bridge over the Neva river until about 5:30 p.m. and then we had to go through the Russian border control and the Customs. Of course we also had to get the motorhome into Russia and they decided that the European insurance policy which works throughout the world would not work in Russia, so we had to buy another insurance policy for Russia, from the lady sitting at the border (very good business, I wonder what she had to pay to get his business) and it was a rush before they changed shifts otherwise would have had to wait another hour.

I was the last through and I joined the rest of the group at 7:30 p.m., a wonderful days entertainment. We then drove about 40 kilometres towards Petersburg to a motel/ hotel that had a locked carpark with razor wire around the fence, and I suspect a guard all night on duty.

The carpark itself was covered in about 50 cm of brown dust so at the slightest pretense a cloud of dust accompanied you as you walk across the carpark.

Having had little sleep the previous night for some reason I decided to take to sleeping pills, and the next thing I knew was the alarm going off at 7 a.m.

Thursday, August 03, 2006
It was 8.15am briefing, in German of course, and 8.30am departure and we drove the 70 kilometres towards the city to another carpark, again locked, and we parked in a big square, almost all facing inwards, and then when electric extension was produced and the 18 motorhomes plugged into this extension via many adapters. If you read about a Russian Atomic Power Station going into meltdown please do not tell the authorities we were the cause of it.

We set off at 8:45 a.m. for a tour around St Petersburg. Now whenever I am, and if I am not driving I have always had a tendency to go to sleep, add to this equation music or in this case a language I do not understand (German) and that doubles the equation. So I had good little snoozes and I have a feeling I was not the only one.

We had a Russian guide for the day who spoke non stop all day in German, I am sure it was interesting, but boy, could she talk!

We first visited a famous Russian Orthodox cathedral, they tell me it was the only one in St Petersburg that stayed open through Soviet times.

We then visited several other landmarks around the city, most of which I was familiar with, and then we went over the river to the spot where the brides of St Petersburg go after they had been married for photographs.

Now having been a wedding photographer in the Sixties and Seventies I still stop and watch weddings to see how they are being photographed, and of course if the bride is pretty, it is very pleasant observations.

Now in the short time that we were there, they were about six wedding parties going through the ritual of champagne toasts, kissing, dancing, smashing of the toast glasses all for the small group of people with the wedding party and of course for the photographer.

Now when we got a really attractive bride in NZ it made the joy of photographing a wedding a pleasure, but of course a pretty girl knows she is pretty, so the photographs have to be exceptional, where as a plain girl is much more grateful for beautiful results.

Now these six brides were all exceptional beauty's, in fact most photographers in New Zealand would be lucky to get one like these a year. Now not only were they beautiful, the dresses were incredible and the hair styles, well all I can say is ladies if you have headdresses like these girls had, treat them like Gold.

Along with weddings there are always the stretch limos that are used in this country and I think today I have seen the ultimate, a stretched Humner!

And of course all of ladies and beautiful high heels on their shoes if you have read my earlier newsletters you'll be aware that in my younger days I managed three different shoe shops, so you could say I have a highly shoe fetish, but in actual fact I just think they look beautiful on, yes, I remember you ladies that suggested a try walking in them, but that, like beating Michael Schumacher in a Formula 1 car is beyond my capabilities, I leave those things that the people who are the experts.

So yes, I am pleased to be back in the old Soviets, with all of the beautiful well-dressed ladies, wearing high heels shoes, with no objections from Luda! In fact she say that she like me looking because she knows I am normal!!!!

We then went on a boat trip along some of St Petersburg's canals and interesting little highlight was a young guy of about 18 waved to us from the first bridge, and that he waved to us from the second bridge, and we watched whilst he ran along the side of the canal to get to the next bridge in time to waved to us, and so it went on for every bridge he was there to greet us with a smile and a large wave, and of course we started looking for him and he was there when we docked in most of us gave him a tip, for his way of entertaining us.

After this we went for a long walk up and down on Nesky, and I was looking for the Internet shop I've used in the past and it has disappeared, but one of Kostas assistants gave me some suggestions as to where I find one to suit my needs.

Friday, August 04, 2006 Today we went by bus into the Winter Palace along with thousands of other people, we did not have very much time so our guide from yesterday is taking us through selected halls giving us the highlights, myself having been there twice before possibly got more from in than those that could understand the German from our guide. The first time I visited the Winter Palace I stood in line for about four hours to gain entrance, and looking at the queues today I think it would be the same for the individual visitor, it was much faster going in, in a group!

One of ladies that had been to Russia in 1971 had visited the Winter Palace on that occasion and commented that their property only 20 people going through it, at that time!

From there it was by Hydrofoil to the Summer Palace and the group walked around all of the fountains and through the Palace and I just rested my feet chatting to two others.

The Summer Palace is another destination for girls getting married and I have a theory that it costs more to get married for there so consequently only those with adequate money can have their daughters married and that location, which could be the reason why today I saw two brides that did not fit into yesterday's category!

This evening we all dined together courtesy of the tour organisers, and naturally there was an adequate supply of vodka on the tables which possibly explained one or two of the group, letting their hair down! We are back at the camp site by 9 p.m..

Saturday, August 05, 2006
Today was a free day and the group Charted a bus to take us to the metro and then costs of lead us into Nesky Prospect and we're on our own for the rest of the day. I started walking Nesky towards the railway station looking for an Internet cafe, the first one I found would not let the plug my computer in, so I carried on to the railway station and then started down the other side.

At 98 Nesky Prospect I found the Shangri-La cafe, they had a small cafe and a large Internet cafe. They had a wifi Internet connection suitable for wireless Internet. The minimum unit was two hours so I purchased that, downloaded all of the e-mails, did my end of month accounts, and still had time left over.

So then wandered back towards metro station and ventured into a large department store where I saw a man who had had his leg amputated and had made his own wooden leg out of ordinary timber and had built a strap into the contraption to hold it to his leg, however he was still walking on crutches and was shopping for a new strap. It's interesting what necessity does.

It's interesting to see the software being sold, the going price for a DVD full of software is 100 roubles (NZ$5.98), that includes full programs like Microsoft Office 12 Professional Edition. I would suggest it is probably not approved by Microsoft.

Of course it was very pleasant walking through town on a Saturday with all of the young girls parading in their finery, anyone that is too old to look at pretty ladies should not come to Russia.

Either by luck or good management everybody arrived at the metros station at the same time so we were able to travel back to the camping spot which was out beyond Peterhof the town that was built for the Summer Palace.

It is now 8 p.m. and the second group has just pulled into the camping ground, which may be the only time they will catch up with us.

The first port of call was extremely large supermarket, one of the largest that I had seen for sometime, a very large variety of products were available in fact there was an over abundance of choice, the pendulum has really swung fully in the opposite direction from Soviet times, all you need now is the money.

Whilst we were there we noticed a group of motorhomes from Holland leaving the shopping centre and whilst we were there a group of motorhomes from France arrived, so it's very obvious that there are very many motorhome tours traveling the roads of Russia.

Being a Sunday there was quite a lot of traffic on the road, and looking at that volume it is lucky it was not a week day.

And then it was on to the village of Pushkin, the village of Czars. Again the guide its spoke in German so it was a matter of observing and forming one's own mind as to what was happening. It was obvious that the building had been burnt in just before1945 and that the roof had fallen in the whole place was really just a ruin, and the Soviets did a wonderful job and restoring the whole building back to its original splendour. Again there were massive crowds, and the ladies in charge of each room in the Palace made sure that each group was moving through at its proper speed, and August is not a very good month to visit the Palace with a massive crowds, much better to plan the visit for spring or autumn.

This quite interesting looking at all of the old houses, made out of wood, we saw on the way some must have been well over a hundred years old, somewhere in good condition others were boarded-up and look like the inside had almost been gutted, then they were all the old wooden houses, most without paint and in all varying conditions.

Some are what I would call the log cabin construction, these were tree trunks are laid at right angles to each other and cut into each other at the corners and most are very old, a reasonable number of the houses are unoccupied, and a number of the houses are just collapsing in on themselves, some have done this totally, others are tilting on a 5 to 15 degree angle, and apart from that they still looks structurally sound.

Often on the side of the road would see a bucket of potatoes or some other vegetables placed on the road to be sold, no signs, maybe there was an indication of the price if you stopped and looked, but that was not for us today.

In each village or town, the houses all look the same as the previous village and there are no immaculate lawns like you see in the West, the land as either used for gardens or ignored.

One of the team was stopped by the long arm of the law, I'm not sure what the problem was, but they ended up back in a campsite and not in a gulag.

After this we had lunch and then headed off towards Nowgorod and we are parked in a large car park behind some building.

Today we looked around Nowgorod, it is an incredible place and to do it justice you would need at least a week there, there was a need old churches dating from the 12th century forward all within a walking block and they are just the ones in the centre of the city. I bought a beautiful heavy thick block called "Nowgorod the great" and looking through this I reached the conclusion, along with everybody else that has visited this city that there is just so much to see.

After the walk around the city we visited a marketplace, and if you have ever visited a marketplace in the old Soviets that all the same, just some are larger than others. We then walked back to the campsite and drove 160 K. to Valdaj where we were packed in to a parking area, each location so far we have handed electricity and water available.

I tried out the GPS on the drive here, I think it must have been one supplied by the KGB to mislead people, because it was always wanting me to turn in to a space either occupied by houses or an empty field.

Tuesday 8th August
Today we drove to Moscow's 420 kilometres, overall and is not too bad driving in Russia so far, the roads ranged from excellent too terrible than all in the space of 5 kilometres. This road from Nowgorod to Moscow I guess would have to be one of the better roads in Russia considering its importance and perhaps by the amount of traffic on the road. There is almost road works in patches along the whole area and I. I would more or less expect this possibly throughout Russia.

As I came up behind one of the other motor homes I was aware that something was going on the ground from underneath the motor home, and then I was aware of diesel being splashed on my windscreen so after trying to attract distinction by bidding has fallen I pulled off to one side and telephoned him, then I carried on driving in a couple of kilometres on I found him parked on the side of the road and yes there was a leak in his diesel tank or line so that it was a matter of them waiting for the tour mechanic to come and fix the problem.

Just before the meeting point where we assemble to go in convoy into the Moscow the camping area we all stopped at a propane gas bottle refilling station and whilst I did not yet need gas I stopped to see what sort of fitting they worked with, it was nothing like Europe, but they did have fittings that screwed onto a German propane tank so all of the group will have no problems having their tank is refilled, and I will have no problems refilling the German Propane tank that came with the motor home, however the Gaslow refillable propane tank that I spent over £300 having fitted, looks like it will be useless in Russia. Yes that is the one with the pipe that leaked making a possibility for an explosion.

Some of the Russian drivers drive like they are possessed by the devil, they pass in almost impossible places and swinging back in to their side of the road with millimetres to spare, then of course there are memorials on the side of the road for those that did not make it.

On the roads we have been on so far it their is reasonably heavy traffic, particularly when you consider they more or less started from scratch 15 years ago. We were passed often by the car transporters taking new cars towards Moscow for that big market. They along with all of the other heavy trucks are really ripping up the road and it's a real pity that the rail is not used to its best advantage, but I guess it was a little bit like the New Zealand rail and they have just let all of the opportunities go to the truckies because of the small-minded bureaucrats that are populated in such an enterprises.

It is certainly cheap motoring in Russia, and I had done the mileage I have done now, paying English prices for the diesel, I would spend $NZ6200, likewise had I done this mileage in Russia paying Russian prices could have spent $NZ1500 a considerable difference, I never thought I would see diesel again at $NZ0.87 a litre.

We finally got to the ring road around Moscow and started heading in to our camp site reasonably close to the centre of Moscow. The traffic was piled up moving at about 10 K. P. H. when it was moving and eventually we got past the obstruction which were three cars stopped in the centre of the five lane road with two police doing goodness knows what, after that it speeded up to a good clip to slow down once again and this time the obstruction was a truck tipped on its side across three lanes, this was very effective and slowing things down. Eventually we all got to the camp site and were packed in like sardines in a tin except in our case we were placed in one at a time.

The guy with the diesel leaking out of his motorhome did not make it to the camp site tonight, this tank had split in this was patched up, then he was struck real bad traffic on the ring road so we will see them sometime tomorrow.

At nine o'clock this morning I went to the metro station to meet Luda, she had had flown in from Rostov, yes, her daughter is well again and is at home. Luda was up at 4 a.m. this morning to catch the flight from Rostov so last night was a short night.

I waited at the metro station for Luda for about an hour observing all the people rushing past on their way to work, I calculate about 7000 people went past me in the hour, very few had smiles, quite a few ladies had high-heeled shoes on, but I must admit there were very few of the pretty woman that I've been talking about in the Soviets.

The hour I was waiting, just by the entrance to the metro station, it was warm with the warmth from the station and was quite cold outside, three dogs ran past me and disappeared into the station than another one followed it, and with when the fifth one went into the station I looked to see where it went, there they were all lying on the tunnel against the wall in a sort of alcove where they were out of the traffic, but in the warmth, they were still there are five hours later when we arrived back from the shopping centre, but now they had three policemen enjoying the warmth with them, except the police were not lying on the ground sleeping.

Today we went to the end of the metro line and caught a free bus to an American-style shopping centre. It was as good as any I have seen anywhere in the world with the best products from all around the world, they even had an indoor skating rink, be it not quite as large as the Galleria in Texas. I found interesting enough that they have caught on very fast about things like free buses to get the people to the shops. The bus was packed full with not even standing room.

It started raining when we arrived back at the camping site and has been raining the rest of the afternoon.

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