Thursday, 18 August 2011

Into Siberia, in Numbers

28 hours: total time of loading the vehicle on an old soviet style boat, crossing the Black sea from Turkey to Russia and clearing the most apathetic & inefficient border control in the Northern hemisphere. ...but we also met Jake, a New Yorker biker, who provided the best company in the most difficult part of our journey so far. Thanks Jake.

12 days: to make it on time to the concert of the Omsk Philharmonic in, surprisingly, Omsk.

3006 miles, 23 MPH average driving speed, 13,983 potholes, 981,000 tonnes of steel beasts coughing clouds of toxic fumes ahead and 1 vital discovery: it’s quicker to overtake up the hard shoulder.

Kazakhstan: a lot of nothing 

20 minutes: average driving time between been pulled over by the next police check in the Caspian Depression.

$100: maximum asking corruption fee

3rd finger: our usual reply  

46 degrees Celsius: daily temperature in the Volga.

46 degrees Celsius #2: extreme temperature that is too bad for the brain, for the blood and for the beer.

319 mosquito bites: out of which 71 are on my legs, 3 in my left ear and 8 on my butt cheeks

1st place: new entry to the top of the World Worst Roads to the Volga territory, Russia. Or put it simply, people of the Volga – you’re road system is worse than Albania’s; sucks to be you.

238 hours: straight without leaving this 2x4m tin box for more than 30 minutes.

0.000000001: the proximity of me going officially insane.

0 minutes shower: before we’ve made it to the concert hall in Omsk. Fragrant, but we’ve made it.

excellent seats

9 days in Kazakhstan: a lot of nothing, 3 tons of dust on the wind screen, 80 dual hump camels crossing the road, 2 punctures, 1 broken wheel, 1 flat battery (all in 1 day) and 2 silly travellers stuck in the middle of nowhere.

1 out of 98,000,000,000: the chances that a bright mechanic from Yorkshire will pass by.  

1 out of 127,000,000,000,000: the chances that a bright mechanic from Yorkshire will pass by and will also be a great company for a few days.

1 day, 2 tyres gone 

Enough numbers, here’s a short story from the road –

Midnight, heavy rain, a week on the road. Exhausted and desperate for a camping spot we drove into the forest – rational action for us these days. It was dark, there was a little confusion mixed with some mannish ego and also a lot of mud of the gooey kind. Obviously we immediately sunk.

Gooey kind of mud

Locals who were nearby came right away with axes and shovels, jumped into the sticky mud and started to dig (Yes – I, too, was asking myself what locals with axes and shovels were doing at midnight in the forest but I did not care enough at the time to find out as long as they keep on digging).

The forest was too dark, the mud too gooey and the rain too wet for a heroic rescue mission so they all gave up and instead took the vodka bottles out and opened an informal welcome celebration for us. Overall it was a rather enjoyable night.

In the morning, after a tractor pulled us out, our dear rescuers invited us to their village. Irena and Ashot showed us what is real hospitality. They fed us well, took us to hot springs in the forest (a different one, not the sticky muddy forest), did a tour around and finished off with a traditional ‘Banya’.  

Beforehand I didn’t know what a traditional Banya meant so here we go: ‘Everything You Needed to Know About Banya’ in 5 short paragraphs.

After-Banya party

The Banya was introduced to our Slavic friends long ago by the Vikings and the principle is similar to Sauna: sweat it all out.

The Banya hut is divided into 3 sections: the lounge, the rinsing room and the sweating cell. As in any other proper culture, men enter first; firstly undressing completely in the lounge (wearing silly hats only), then preparing buckets of icy water in the rinsing room and finally entering the sweating cell.

In the sweating cell fire heats a pile of stones. Water is sprayed on the pile to create steam. It’s tough. Feels like a shrimp in a curry dish. The skin is being baked, breathing is hard, temperature is rising to 110C but only then the real action begins.

Each one on his turn lies down while the others slap him with branches and twigs. Exactly a moment before passing out the person moves (or removed) to the rinsing room for a freezing splash of icy water. Note the extremity. The whole process is been repeated over and over until the group, utterly squeezed, is retired outside for a refreshing slow drink. 

It may sound like a sadistic torture – and perhaps it is, but the feeling in the end is divine. It’s purifying, refreshing and rejuvenating. It brings wonderful senses of calmness, cleanness and sleepiness - I love calmness, cleanness and especially sleepiness therefore I love Banya.      


We ended up staying with Irina and Ashot for 2 nights. The hospitality was brilliant and generous. In general – more than the pine cones seeds, the beautiful girls and the abundant burning materials – the most enjoyable aspect of Siberia is the hospitality. Everywhere in Siberia we found wonderful, kind and warm people who were willing to help us, pull us of out of the mud, direct us and make us feel welcomed: thank you, the people of Siberia.  

Route Map: Russia (leg 1) + Kazakhstan

Irena, Ashot and the whole gang, Oxana, Sergei & Jena, Alexey and the Team Gorky Rafting group, Sasha ‘is little mouse’ the Altai guide, the staff in Vianor garage Barnaul, Igor the Land Rover specialist in Omsk and all of those people we met on the side of the roads – Thanks a lot guys!!!

Jen & Noam

More stories and photos from the road in our website