After having some seriously icy roads on our journey north to Semey in Kazakhstan, we had no idea what the road to the border with Russia would be like. The answer – very good, and improving by the minute, and we took full advantage, with all thoughts of fuel economical driving out the window. Well, at less than 30p a litre, who can blame us?! We hadn’t had great experiences with Kazakh border crossings so far, and had heard rumours that this crossing point was quite busy. Combine this with our preconceptions about Russia, and specifically Russian police and border controls, and it is safe to say that the words “this could be the hardest one so far…” had crossed our lips. What a mistake. We drove immediately up to the first checkpoint, were let through after about a 15 minute wait, and ushered into a hanger for what we assumed would be a comprehensive drugs search. It wasn’t. The guard opened the back of the Beaut, was greeted by our two smiling ladies in the back, and promptly let us go! He even had the decency to tell us where to go next, which is a rarity in Kazakhstan border posts. 10 minutes later we were stamped out (despite Kat somewhat prematurely greeting the passport control officer with the words “Dosvidanya”…), and drove slowly towards the Russian side. Surely here we were in for a thorough search? In fact, this was one of our most chilled crossing experiences so far. There was no queue at all. They did search us, but more out of interest of the vehicle, to see what equipment we had brought with us and how we packed it, rather than a full on drugs search. In under an hour, (both exit and entry) we were free to go, and in Russia!
I don’t know what I had expected from Russia, but it wasn’t this. For some reason, I pictured a desolate wasteland, with awful polluting factories, run down Soviet era buildings, and aggressive, rude and stand-offish people. How this little corner of Siberia has challenged my preconceptions. The landscape is beautiful. Wintery forests, icy rivers, snow covered arable land, and miles upon miles of straight, outstanding quality road. For once, Jon, (the king of the over-claim), might have been right when he declared this “the best road since Europe”.
After a quiet night camping in the corner of a field just off the road, we knocked off the remaining 200km to Barnaul in double quick time (fuel was still about 30p a litre), and prepared to enter civilisation again. The guide book describes it as “having just enough to keep you entertained”, and it did not disappoint. Never has so much coffee and cake been sampled in such a short space of time. Coby declared the macaroons as the best she had ever tasted (giant, and cherry flavoured), and Tom found some chocolate fondants of food-gasm quality.
Although we were a bit disappointed to be stuck again (waiting on yet another delivery – Fedex this time, not as good as DHL!), and had seriously itchy feet, Barnaul was a nice place to be laid up for a few days. Ten pin bowling thoroughly recommended for an evening activity. Now, if only these brake cylinder seals would actually turn up…