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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE


We have no desire to stay in the workshop another night so at 7pm we head out towards Divnogorsk along the river and of course this route takes us right through the city with stop start traffic. By the time we reach the river it is nearly dusk & we stop at the first spot we find. It is right in town beside the river but proves pretty quiet. Naturally in the morning we spy quite a few awesome spots only 10 minutes down the road.   

And so, the drive continues. By lunchtime we reach the pretty town of Majinhsk where there is a quaint main drag surrounded by streets of old wooden houses. We stop for some fruit & water from yet another roadside pump. Then on to the city of Tomsk via the back road. Fortunately, it is Saturday so we head straight to the centre of the old city & find a great spot on the River Tom. Perfect to head out to explore tonight & yet again the next morning. This city would have to be the friendliest we have been to so far in Russia (even gifts of a no plate with note left on GR2 & boxes of chocolates) So many people stop to chat & many have a smattering of English. The restaurant a local guy books for us is amazing (especially as it my birthday dinner) and the lovely lace covered mansions are superb.

Now we are doubling up on roads by driving from Novosibirsk to Omsk. We have no choice so we blast through. But this time there are heaps more wildflowers out, hay has been cut, more road has been resurfaced and best of all fewer mozzies are out and about. Two big driving days before we reach the city of Tyumen. Here we are to visit Nikolay & his family at his home. We met them on the road yesterday & Nikolay said “Come to my house - just follow me” The next time he stops we realise his house is over 400km away, and it is already late, so we arrange to visit the next day. And what an awesome day it is. Lunch is waiting when we arrive. John decides he should sack me and take Nicolay’s Mum with him as cook. Then we get a guided tour of the city which includes a huge storm (like the ones we get at home). The 2-hour tour became 4 hours. We stay for dinner. Lots of “toasts” and talking before sleeping outside in the carpark. Thank you, Nicolay & your lovely family.

From Tyumen we head north to Tobolsk as it sounds fascinating. We are amazed how much traffic is heading this way – directly north. Finally arrive and park right outside the Kremlin walls & head off to explore. The cathedral is gorgeous – I just love all those shiny domes. We even visit the museum & explore the old town. Then on to another Monastery while we are out here. It is getting late and we have found a spot on I-Overlander at a geyser like pool. Hmmm sounds good, so that is where we head. It really is strange to see hot water spurting out of a pipe near the river, but it makes a great camp spot and is not bad for a hot, muddy soak.

Then the drive back to Tyumen and on to the city of Ekaterinburg (named after Catherine the Great & Catherine the patron saint of mining). It is late by the time we arrive so we crawl through the ring road traffic until we reach our planned camp spot at Ganina Yama – the site where the Romanov corpses were found. Since been executed they have managed to achieve sainthood status and there is a Monastery here in their honour. We explore the wooden churches – made without nails, before making use of their carpark for the night.  

We hadn’t planned on visiting the city but change our minds & head to the centre – somehow managing to drive in rush hour yet again. Find a park easily right beside the magnificent Church of the Spilled Blood where the Romanovs were executed. A fantabulous building- no photo could do that amazing interior justice. Then we wander town before heading off, well pleased with our stop. From here we had planned to head directly north to Perm 36 – a GULAG museum, but I see there are Ice Caves at Guntur and so we head there first arriving by 4pm. Fortunately there is a tour at 5pm. The first section is amazing with draping ice & carved   shapes, but then it goes downhill as we trot from rock area to rock area with a long commentary in Russian. We stay overnight in the carpark – perfect.

So today we head north to Perm 36. And a great visit that is. This Gulag was only closed in 1987 so is pretty much intact. What a truly brutal place these Gulags were. We leave counting our blessings that we were not born in Russia. From here we carry on through the Ural Mountains (really not very mountainous, but lovely, lush & green… no doubt because of all the rain, and where we leave Siberia & enter Europe) on to the city of Perm. Here we stop at an Armament museum after noticing all the guns & tanks as we drive past, & then the city zoo. A bit of a tiny squashed place but it has the advantage of having one of those Amur Tigers we had missed seeing over in Vladivostok.  The tiger is here pacing his cage, and we enjoy seeing a very chubby polar bear, a happy Asian bear munching watermelon & my highlight – a Snow Leopard & her cubs. No camp spots beside the river so we head out of town finding a lovely spot at the ferry port on the River Kama. Yet another magic spot.

In the morning we board the ferry in huge swirls of mist. As it clears we drive & drive. Another huge driving day to the city of Kazan – capital of the Tartar Republic. Courtesy of I-Overlander we camp right on the Volga River on a sandy beach right in the centre of the city. Lovely after a long day. Hopefully the local disco will stop earlier on a Sunday night. It doesn’t, but we still sleep well. Time to explore the city. So, after a morning of chores we head to the city & park right beside the amazing white walled Kremlin. Inside there are so many buildings to gawp at. The new mosque is eye-catching, the leaning tower on a par with Pisa, & the Annunciation Cathedral sumptuous. Best of all are the views of the city. It has had a huge makeover to ready it for the World Cup held here a few months ago. Then down the main pedestrian mall before dinner out. Back to our beach for the night.

Time to leave this lovely city after a not so quick stop to top up our Sim card. As we head across the Volga River we spy a beach & head down for a late morning tea/early lunch. We don’t leave. Just stay all day. Chat to some lovely people, put in our boat for a spin & swim. Such beautiful weather makes beach chilling time awesome.

Wake to a cold grey day. There was even it bit of rain in the night. Weather is so changeable here. Time to get back amongst all those trucks heading towards Moscow. You would expect a double laned highway all the way. Right! But no. They are still working on it and it is bumper to bumper trucks. I find a back road – a ferry crossing the river to a Monastery & then back road all the way to Nizhny Novgorad. But the ferry has broken down, so it is back to join the trucks.

We reach Nizhny Novgorod late afternoon so decide to check out the beach for a camp spot, but this proves a definite no go, so we head along the riverfront in town. We find a park and head off to explore the very renovated Kremlin. It is massive with some rather lovely red brick towers and uninspiring buildings. We round of our night with the local specialty – dumplings. Then over the river to camp beside the Nevsky Cathedral. One of our better spots – riverfront views, huge quiet carpark & yet another Cathedral to admire. In fact, it is so good we stay the next night after spending another day exploring town. Try to locate a river cruise, but no success, so we head off to yet another Monastery & then cross the Volga River in a Gondolier. A lovely touristy day!

We are now entering The Golden Ring area – we visited here in 2008 with some Overland friends, so it is going to be hard not to “double” up. We are also trying to avoid the busy main road & have found some suggestions in the ever-helpful Lonely Planet. So, our first visit is to Murom dubbed “one of the prettiest towns in Russia” – hmmmm!!! Overrated, but we do manage to visit a few Monasteries. John skips the second one by filling up with water at a street side pump. We head on to Vladimir, but as we have been here we merely pass through & on to a riverside camp spot near Suzdal.

We remember Suzdal from our last visit. Even see our previous camp spot, but time has changed this town. It as pretty as ever – chock full of churches, monasteries & cute old houses, but now it is popping with tourists. It is Saturday & a perfect distance from Moscow for day or weekend trips.  One more LP gem to pop in to see – and this one is very cute. The little town of Yurlev-Polsky where we can wander along an earth embankment that totally surrounds the Kremlin. A great way to peek inside. Totally Monasteried out we head to Moscow for our assault on the city. The plan is to arrive tonight & camp at a spot John has located & drive right to the centre early Sunday morning.

The plan is successful. Despite lots of traffic we find our camp spot a mere 8km from the centre of the city. It is in the grounds of the very new & very Disney like Izmailovsky Kremlin. In the morning we reach Red Square & St Basils by 7am. It is easy to get photos of GR2 outside these iconic structures and then park on a back street. There are police everywhere – we cannot park on a main drag & they are in the process of closing the streets. We don’t quite know why but think it may have something to do with the Kremlin Tattoo taking place in Red Square. The Square is all barriered off with full security and there is a huge grandstand all set up. Anyway, we head out to explore. The riverfront has been given a marvellous make over for the World Cup & there is a great walkway over the water. By the time we finish a late breakfast (pancakes of course) Red Square is chock full of tourists. To round off our day we do the hop on- hop off bus & a 2-hour boat cruise. Phew, being tourists is exhausting. Finally, back at GR2 we head to our Kremlin for the night. I am hoping for more fireworks – last night they were a few metres from GR2, and we simply opened our window & watched while debris rained down on & beside us! But not tonight.

We are now on our last few days in Russia. What about St Petersburg you think…Two reasons. Firstly, we have been to this amazing city twice before, and secondly our visas are due to expire in a few days. Our original plan was to drive to Smolensk & on to Belarus, but annoyingly we do not think we can cross the border there. The border is a free one, meaning no customs are in place so we cannot get our Russian visas stamped out, or our Belarus ones stamped in so we will have to transit through Latvia. So, a few more days driving through lots of trees in rather dull grey weather. Both nights we find great spots beside lakes. Perfect for a fire – even if we sit underneath umbrellas when it starts to drizzle. Finally, we reach the border to Latvia…. Goodbye Russia – we have loved our visit. 






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