Russia - Behind the curtain
Our day started early for a change – our alarm went off at 6:30. Russia here we come!
Lisa and I packed up at a steady pace without too much conversation. Russia, for us, is an unknown quantity and the Russian leg of our trip is going to be our first real test – not only for our bikes and our riding ability, but also for Lisa and I personally trying to make ourselves understood and survive in a country that linguistically and socially is so alien to us. Individually we both realised this and were both dealing with the mixture of excitement anticipation and nerves of what may lie ahead.
We arrived at the Norwegian-Russian border at 8:00 after squeezing as much fuel into our bikes as we could manage. At the Norwegian border our passports and documents were cleared for our exit – 50 metres on Lisa and I crossed the Russian border riding our bikes side by side. Ahead of us was a single red van and as we rolled up and parked behind we noticed we were surrounded by cameras and razor wire. A very stern young lady in full military dress checked our bikes and then promptly disappeared. Several minutes later we realised that we were going to be sat here for quite a long time – so turned our bikes off and made ourselves as comfortable as we could. An hour later our stern young lady returned and we were issued two small passes to enter the visa/passport compound area.
We parked the bikes behind the van again and made our way into the very modern but austere building. Our passports were checked initially at the first glass cubicle where we then passed through to a low desk where another very young but serious stern man checked paperwork of those wishing to enter with the determination and concentration of somebody who believed that the continuation of the Russian way of life depended on it! It was now our turn and the request for our paperwork came in Russian –Lisa quickly – and with the best smile she could muster – handed over all the paperwork we could find. We then waited.
As the minutes passed our concern grew as several other colleagues were called over to look at our paperwork. Finally in stilted English the female senior administrator said to us “ This is no good!” as she thrust the vehicle registration document towards us.
Anybody wishing to ride into Russia as part of a bigger trip may need to take heed of the following: when you leave the UK for more than a year with a vehicle that is registered with the DVLA in the UK– you are legally obliged to inform them that the vehicle is being exported i.e. It will be out of the country for a year of more and the DVLA will then no longer demand that vehicle tax be paid in the UK until you re-register once back in the UK. During my conversations with the DVLA in the UK I had mentioned many times that we were not importing into any one country permanently – however – each time the answer was the same: ”you are exporting and therefore can not use a SORN”
OK – so I had hoped they knew what they were talking about! Note-we were told that ” it is illegal for you to declare a SORN for this period of time”! However, when informing the DVLA of this you also have to return the V5 registration document, which you obviously need when travelling out of the country!? The DVLA do send you another Registration document but it is nothing like the original V5 and looks completely unofficial and it is THIS document that the Russians didn’t like.
It took quite some convincing that this was in fact the legitimate document and was only accepted in tandem with our UK driving licences, passports, Russian visa’s, vehicle permit stamp, that we had just obtained from the consulate in Kirkenes, our IDP’s and our insurance documents. Thank God we’d been prepared!!
Whilst waiting to get our paperwork approved we’d been filling out the appropriate Russian customs declaration form. This is where you have to list every item of value you are taking in to Russia. We’d been warned about the importance of this document, as any items not listed cannot be taken out when you exit the country. To my great concern the official looked at these carefully completed forms and screwed them up and threw them away! However, we did get the most important document of all, which is the official stamped customs entry certificate, which must not be lost under ANY circumstances!!
With a wave of his hand we were dismissed – and unsure as to whether we were being dismissed from the building or simply to another part of the process – we gingerly went outside towards our bikes expecting to be stopped and arrested at any given point!! Around our bikes were now two uniformed and armed guards both intent upon taking a closer look. With their intentions clear we were asked to open all our cases – panniers, bags...everything (aaggh) we were going to be here a while longer! At last with the inspection complete we rode onto the last barrier – our bikes were once again checked and the small piece of paper given upon entry to the compound was now re-checked and returned to us.
The barrier raised – ‘bloody hell’ we thought – they’ve let us in!!
The initial 5 km out of the compound was a poorly tarmacked road surface. We were then faced with our first bit of rough track – several kilometres of the road were being rebuilt and whilst the work is being carried out all that is left is very, very loose sand and rock.
I rode on ahead of Lisa trying to remember all I’d been taught at the BMW off-Road Course. The GS squirmed unhappily beneath me with the front and back tyre having no chance of any real purchase. Only controlled ‘blips’ of the throttle were keeping the GS upright. I tried to stay relaxed on the bike; painfully aware that Lisa was looking at my body language to determine the difficulty of the ride ahead, while she tackled the track I’d just ridden. 4-5Km in, and I watched Lisa in my mirror hit the dirt hard as her front tyre dove into a large pocket of dust and sand, throwing the bike out from underneath her.
Two oncoming lorries stopped as their route was now blocked. Before I was able to get back to Lisa, a young Russian road worker had enthusiastically come to her aid and practically given himself a hernia as he tried to right her heavy machine whilst trying to look as masculine and nonchalant as possible. On the 4th attempt and just prior to his head exploding with all of the effort he succeeded. With thanked him profusely and started up Lisa’s bike and rode on to the next piece of tarmac.
This road, although surfaced, was incredibly bumpy with large potholes thrown in for good measure. That said we didn’t find them as bad as we’d been led to believe, then again perhaps we just have an active imaginations. As we rode on, easily seen on either side of us were the foreboding wooden military towers where armed guards would have patrolled this stretch of no mans land. The high razor wire fences left and right kept us on the straight. The fence now is unkempt and man size holes can be seen here and there and the tall wooden towers are now unmanned and have been so for several years now. All the same, the feeling of being closely watched was never too far away.
In the distance we could see a small roadside hut and a closed red and white striped barrier halting our progress. We were brought to a stop by two armed military guards and for the first time since leaving the border compound we felt a little out of our depth. Time to bring out our best cheesy smile, you know, the one that is meant to read, “...hi, we’re tourists, please don’t shoot us or ask us for money”. Eventually we worked out that these two ‘boys’ (they can’t have been more than 19) wanted us to produce the scrappy bit of paper we’d been issued at the compound. We quickly handed it over and maintained our grins. As the minutes passed the tension lessened as the boys tried hard to maintain their serious pose in spite of their obvious excitement over the bikes.
45 minutes into our ride into Russia, the lush green of Scandinavia gradually began to disappear as we approached the town of Nikel. If a movie director out there wants to shoot a film about an apocalyptic world, including landscapes savaged by man, then Nikel is set up and just waiting for the cameras to roll.
Somehow I don’t think though, that's the kind of PR the Russian government is going to be too keen on. Nikel was described by our ‘Lonely Planet’ Russian guidebook as, “...hell on earth”. They’re not far wrong. Fumes from the factory stung our nostrils and eyes as the wind changed direction and we rode closer. No wild thing lives here. No animals on the ground and, rather spookily, there was not a single bird in the sky. The land is dead for 50Km in all direction. Burnt tree stumps and scorched earth remaining where a rich forest had grown for maybe thousands of years. If you think I’m laying on the literary clichés a bit thick, then you’re right, but more than any place we’ve travelled to before, Nickel deserves all of them. That said, nothing could really prepare you Nikel.
Nikel was founded in the 1930’s when the Finns discovered rich deposits of Nickel. Over the years, strip-mining operations tore up the landscape and enormous amounts of Sulphur Dioxide poured into the environment in all directions killing off everything. Around Nikel are small dirty water pools; we watched in horror and disbelief and locals enthusiastically threw themselves into the cool water, on what was fast becoming a very hot day. Swimming in these horrendously contaminated water holes is beyond our comprehension, but then again, we’re lucky I guess as we’re not the ones who have to live here.
Lisa and I increased our speed in an attempt to distance ourselves from Nikel. The lingering fumes thrown up into our helmets was making us both feel nauseous. As Nikel faded into the background so did the smell and slowly but surely mother nature was making a comeback with the landscape turning from bomb blast brown to a healthy green. For a little while the road got better and we felt able to fill our lungs properly.
An hour further on and a familiar smell once again burnt our nostrils as we passed the Nickel mining town of Zapolyarnye, proud owner of the Worlds deepest hole, which extends 12Km beneath the surface. We didn’t stop to look, as the need to gag was once again predominant. The day was getting hotter still and we still had some way to go to reach Murmansk, where we still had to find somewhere to stay that would be secure for the bikes.
At around 6pm we reached the outskirts of Murmansk. Our brilliant timing fitted in perfectly with ‘rush hour’. A few wrong turns later we finally found the hotel we’d been recommended. Hotel Polyarnye Zory is plush by Russian standards but importantly offers armed security at a price for its guest. The room set us back only £40 per night – and although this was quite a large chuck of our budget, we were ‘happy’ to pay this for peace of mind and the safety aspect for the bikes – this cost and the amount for our bikes was insignificant when compared to our peace of mind.
We couldn’t wait to have a cool shower and collapse – it had been a hard day, not only riding but mentally as well in having to deal with all the paperwork and men with guns- something we have yet to get used to.