Welcome to Kazakhstan!

We’ve made it to Kazakhstan! Had an eventful morning so we’re off to catch up on sleep and food…will update you on our Kazakh adventures thus far soon…

Heading towards Samara

Out of the tent at 5 am, on the road at 5:30. Silver mileage: 68580. We were pulled over twice but only had to pay the bribe once and it was only 500 rubles this time, mostly because of Alisha’s charm. “Good-bye my baby” were his parting words. We got stuck in the sand by the side of the road (which doesn’t bode well for Kazakhstan and Mongolia) but the good news is our cars are so small they are pretty easy to push out of harms way. We had lunch by a dilapidated church in some nameless town off the M5 between Moscow and Samara where we were besieged by a hoard of teenage boys on bikes. They were at first too cool for pistachios but soon we lured them in and by the end we were discussing our route in broken Ruske and for sure they were making us say obscene things in Russian. Pretty sure we joined the Russian version of the Pen15 club (“a sphincter says what” in Russian….?)

Because we can learn from our mistakes we pulled off the road much earlier and found a beautiful campsite in a meadow that was sufficiently out of sight and off the main road. (and got our first taste of off roading in our little cars). The bugs were still huge and in attack mode but we remained unmolested for the most part for the evening.

The Micra fleet is holding up well although not without some afflictions. Happy Pallatsky lost a bumper (we managed to tie it back on) and seems to be invested with bees, Cratesky smells of rotten vegetables and sour milk, and Senior is being forced to carry a larger and larger load but is doing well with his mustachioed face-lift.

Moscow, it’s been lovely

July 28th: Once again the Russian bureaucracy got the best of us when we determined that we really needed an extra stamp on our visas to comply with every 3 days registration policy and didn’t know where we’d be sleeping later that day. After we’d seen the Red Square, the Kremlin and waged a powdered sugar pastry war in front of Archangel Cathedral, we decided it was better to seek out the stamp in Moscow. So while Zoya and Annie negotiated with a hostel proprietor to stamp our passports even though we hadn’t stayed there, the rest of us used the 4 hours on a side street in Moscow to embellish our car decoration. Senior, our silver Micra, will now be known as Senor Moustachio and has a pistachio flavored mustache (insert picture). We also met many lovely Muscovites who signed our car, broke pistachios with us, and wished us well along our way.

Each time we arrive in a new more Easterly Russian city, we discover that it is an hour later than we thought and we can visibly see the change as it gets darker and darker, earlier and earlier. This poses some challenge for finding campsites late at night. Near St. Petersberg, the furthers north most of us have every been, it was light until almost midnight and here southeast of Samara it is becoming twilight at only 9.

After ice cream, a whole lot of pasta eaten communally out of a plastic bag, and some stamps we were finally on our way out of Moscow and conveniently missed the rush hour traffic.

We slept that night INSERT town, about 80 KM southeast of Moscow in an apparently empty field. But not sooo empty as we were awoken at 2 am by a car careening quite close to our tents through the open field. Understandably, we freaked out, and came up with many potentially unpleasant scenarios. The ladies packed up and moved to sleep in the cars while the guys stayed put, or in Kyle’s case, never heard the car at all(either time it passed by). We were up by 4 the next morning and out by 5 and feeling much better in the daylight.

Straight to the heart

Intended to leave the hostel at 8am, actually left at 9:30 after an epic repacking. Nevertheless, we experienced our first on-time arrival, 700 km south-east to Moscow! We had our first (but not our last) encounter with the Russian police force which is exceptionally well staffed and equipped. We apparently made an illegal left turn into a gas station and they had a video to prove it. We threw Brad to the wolves and they made him get in their car and inconspicuously deposit 2000 rubles into the car’s ashtray. We arrived in Moscow around 10 pm and navigated the largest street we have ever seen with 7 lanes in each direction straight through the city. We stayed with Scott Burns, a peace-corps friend of Alisha’s boyfriend, in his Moscow apartment across the street from the US embassy. Thanks again Scott for letting 8 strangers invade your home! Strangely enough, parking in downtown Moscow is pretty easy – no meters or enforcement of any kind, every Micra for herself, and sidewalks are fair game. Driving is no joke, as the roads come in two flavors: 12 lane monstro-ways, or narrow paths under constant construction. And don’t fuckin’ think about taking a left, it is forbidden. For this reason, Muscovites hate NASCAR.

Mother Russia

We nervously arrived at the Russian border, aware that this was our first serious border crossing and with fresh memories of Russian visa disasters and confusions on our minds. After drying some laundry and choreographing our Airag Shuffle, we were waved into border no-man’s land. All three cars got to the fourth and final circle of Russian border-hell, when we were told that only one car could continue to Russia because Paul is the owner of all three and can only legally bring in one (we are thinking of buying him a flannel sport coat for his used-car dealership). Again we were caught off guard by the problem we’d encountered. So we put on our lawyer-pants and the negotiating began. While Paul was vouching for the cars, the rest of us were smiling dumbly while trying to look nice and innocent. It may have been pity, or it may have been that we somehow ended up with the nicest Russian customs official this side of a perogi, but she came up with a method to get all 8 people and 3 cars through. We now have a stack of paperwork thicker than many finance textbooks, but somehow that makes us at least passably legal and that’s really all we ask.

We are now on the road to St. Petersburg, it is after midnight, there’s 300km ahead of us, potholed roads, the new challenge of Cyrilliac, and a second visit from the Polish electrical storm, which has the flooded streets. But we are in Russia and that seems like a darn good accomplishment for now.

The long haul

With sore heads and romantic thoughts of Polish cabbage on our minds we went north, making it just over the border at sundown. There we camped by a lake campsite run by an overly-lubricated Polish man with a knack for finger-counting, and got ready for the enormous push we had to get to the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, by the next night.

The next day our determination once again turned out to be naivity and wryly Warsaw’s traffic put us in our place. For three hours. On the hottest (or only hot) day of our trip thus far. Delayed by Warsaw, we skipped Vilnius and settled for a campground run by a surly lady in the lake region of Poland, dubbed an “agrotourist” spot. We’re still not sure if the agro refers to the pricing scheme (surly lady:“10 Euro per person”, us: “80 Polish zlotsky?”, surly lady: “alright”), or the neighing horses and electrical storms to rival a Pink Floyd laser show (Brad swore we were going to die).

The next morning our dismay over missing Vilnius was made up for by the small but beautiful town of Khonas where we had real coffee, a feast fit for kings (and really really hungry rally drivers), and kvas. Kvas is a lithuanian beverage of fermented bread, and thus a near cousin of our strange fermented namesake, Airag, an obvious a crowd favorite for the AAs. Regretfully but with happily full stomachs we pushed on and enjoyed the blue skies and Lithuanian countryside. On the way we stopped at the Hill of Crosses, an amazing site where literally thousands of crosses of all shapes, sizes and messages adorn a hill which Pope John Paul II once spoke from. The hill continues to morph with new crosses being added in prayer, remembrance, and faith all the time.

We successfully crossed a time zone and made it to Riga, the capital of Latvia and a Unesco World Heritage City, before dark, found a hostel and unloaded the cars. Then Riga began kicking our butts. Four Addicts set off to the parking lot associated with the hostel to soon discover that World Heritage City is code for blocked roads, dead ends, one ways and no left turns, anywhere, in the whole city. It was a cobblestone nightmare. Over an hour later all the restaurants were closing and we turned to scavenging for dinner with the plan to wake up at 5:30am and set off for St. Petersburg. In the morning we began looking for car insurance for Russia, which we 1: need, and, 2. can purchase in Riga. We now know that #1 is true and #2 is false, and we set off for the Russian border and St. Pete’s at 11:30am (it was a slow painful lesson in rejection). (Note to perspective Russian car-border crosses, as of 3 months ago you can no longer buy Russian car insurance in Latvia, unless your vehicle is registered in Latvia).

Don’t cry over spilt-reservations

We had booked car-ferries to take us from the land of tea and crumpets to that of souffle’s and the Eiffel tower, and happily set off for the ferries, comfortable in midst of the easiest part of the trip. Reality quickly set in when one of the cars didn’t get on the ferry due to a reservation mis-hap, forcing Annie, Zoya and Paul to befriend the Dover police force and pitch their tent in the arrivals hall, while the rest of us sailed slowly to Calais, France. Their car (Crateski) had also started steaming in the ferry line, so times were looking tough for a bit.

After reassembling the next morning and fixing the radiator fan we were off to Bonn, to stay the night with Konstantine, an old friend Zoya’s, who graciously offered us the use of his panoramic roof for sleeping. We split early the next morning, after blanketing another town with pistachios and general nut-glee.

That day Emily arrived to complete the fearless octuplet Airag Addicts, just in time for the CzechOut party (a 24-hour Czech-bonanza in a castle complete with beer tents, tea parlours and Isreali ska dancers, where all 500 teams assembled before setting off on their respective routes towards Mongolia). Emily had miraculously caught all three of her on-time flights from Jamaica to Prague and even did a bag-switch to exchange bikini’s and wedding glitz for needle-nose pliers and mechanical bits with her dad in the Newark airport (thanks Mr. Friedberg!). She arrived safely in time for CzechOut where we danced the night away.