Thursday dawns bright and sunny. Looking forward to a decent breakfast, but there is nothing that looks appealing so we decide to make an earlier start. A quick check over Marvin looks encouraging, no oil dropped over night and only about 250ml of oil used since yesterday morning. However the accelerator pump has come loose again and so Neil decides to remove it and see if it makes any difference to the engine. On starting there is no difference to the performance of the engine and a quick examination shows the airways to it in the carb are completely blocked so it is consigned to the spares box
The plan is to head straight out to the M5 towards Kazakhstan, but no more than a few hundred yards from the hotel we find Red Square! For once luck is on our side and we come across an underground car park. We decide it’s too good an opportunity to miss so we decide to stay for an hour for a whistle stop tour of Red Square.
Getting out of the car park however proves challenging, we walk along a corridor following what we thing are signs for the lift and we push through a door that closes behind us only to find ourselves locked in a 4 x 6 foot space. Neither door will open, on the wall there is a electronic box, we put our ticket in, expecting the door to open but nothing happens – are we really here for the remainder of the rally???
Eventually after pressing various buttons and hammering on the door and shouting, a security guard opens the door and we find ourselves in a Russian shopping centre. Heading out we find a cordon of security men preventing anyone from entering the shopping centre – most odd!
We spend the next hour wandering around Red Square gawping at the awesome sight, taking photographs of all we see – after all – this is our one and only visit to Red Square. Then we make our way back to the car park to continue our journey.
Driving out of Moscow we stop at traffic lights and are targeted by a group of street urchins who try to reach into the car and steal things from the glove box. A polite word (well Neil growing) soon sends them on their way and off we go looking for the M5.
This proves problematical to say the least as all roads seem to lead to nowhere. We occasionally see the M5 in the distance but all our attempts to reach it are doomed to fail. Stopped in a residential area looking at our maps, some local children come over and after much waving and pointing, we are directed back to a main road. We soon find a petrol station and fill up before asking for directions. After being laughed at by the local drunks – the garage worker eventually emerges and gives us a copy of a Moscow road map and points us in the right direction. Unsurprisingly half an hour later we are totally lost again so we pull into a garage for directions, after what appears to be a heated discussion between the garage man and a customer, we are waved to follow the customer and he leads us through a maze of back streets to the M5 and off we go.
As we get 10 miles or so out of Moscow, we get a text from Leo and Elizabeth suggesting a meal in Moscow, which would have been lovely but not wanting to risk getting lost there again, we text back and say will hopefully meet them further down the road.
The M5 is the main route south-east from Moscow, it is also no bigger or better than an English B road and 75% of the traffic are huge Kamaz trucks and trailers, belching thick black diesel smoke which becomes an enduring memory of driving in Russia, that and Russian drivers. Russian drivers respect no rules, they drive fast and furious, not using signals or even seeming to notice any other road users.
At one time while Neil is sleeping, Jan is driving, there are lorries in front and behind, two decide to turn left in front, so the ones behind overtake on the inside surrounding Jan on all four sides. Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes Jan puts her foot down and hopes for the best – so far this seems to work! A little while later, the lorry behind Jan indicates to the right and flashes his headlights, thinking she is doing something wrong – Jan pulls over, only to be followed by the lorry, still flashing his lights but indicating left, pulling back onto the road, Jan is amazed to see the lorry pull along beside us with the driver hanging out of the window videoing us with his camera ‘phone.
Refueling becomes a nightmare, as Marvin will not start when the engine is hot so we have to sit and wait for him to cool down, or hope for someone to give us a bump start. Also we are losing power. Things aren’t looking good for reaching Mongolia.
Although this is the main route, in some places there are houses only yards away from the road, many of which have tables on the roadside selling fruit and vegetables grown in their gardens. Huge piles of watermelons, apples, oranges, plums, potatoes and more.
We pass another area selling, dried fish hanging on wooden frames, another area selling carpets. Probably the most bizarre sight was a field full of bright mutli-coloured plastic inflatables, swimming pools, animals – you name it – they probably had it!!
As it gets dark – Neil takes over the driving and we see lights in the distance, on getting closer we see a row of shacks, strung with multi-coloured lights, on the balcony of each burns a barbeque, these are the famed shashlik houses and from the number of trucks parked up they were doing very good business.
As the night wears on we start looking for somewhere to pull over to sleep but there are no laybys to be seen so we press further and further across Russia. A series of three police stops in an hour doesn’t lighten the mood. At the last one Neil gets out and after the now familiar showing of documents and cigarette break is told to go into the large traffic police building at the side of the road. Here he meets Uri, a large man with much scrambled egg on his shoulders. The documents are taken, along with another Marlboro and Uri copies down all the details into a huge ledger. Although speaking little English, and Neil even less Russian, children and families are discussed, Tony Blair mentioned (by Uri!) and eventually the documents are returned. Then Uri, looking very serious thinks long and hard and says…. ADMIN. Neil takes this to mean bribe time and returns to get his wallet.
Meanwhile Jan is sitting in the car only able to see the top of Neil’s head as the young traffic cop walks round and round Marvin. Feeling a bit foolish Jan opens the door and gestures him to have a closer look eventually inviting him to sit in the drivers seat. After looking closely at the instruments and playing with the gear lever he gets hold of the steering wheel and starts making BRRM BRRM noises!!!.
Getting the wallet Neil returns to see how much this is going to cost us. Uri puts away his ledger and takes another book out and finding an empty page writes a euro sign. Looking in the wallet Neil finds €40 and hands it over. Taking it Uri write €40 in the book and turns it round. Not knowing what is wanted Neil signs next to it but Uri shakes his head then takes out his wallet and shows a wodge of rouble notes. Ah! He wants to know how much €40 is in roubles. Have you ever tried to work out how much €40 is in roubles when you only know that there are 50 roubles to a pound? And a € is about 60p? At 3am?
After a couple of attempts Neil arrives at a figure of 1200 roubles. Uri looks at this and this time nods his head and proceeds to count out 1200 roubles and hand them over! (Thinking about this later we realized he was converting roubles into hard currency… probably for his retirement fund!). Hand shakes all round and to our relief Marvin starts and we drive off. Maybe an hour and a few wrong turnings later we see more lights and are amazed to discover we have reached the Kazak border. Marvin is running rougher and rougher and seems way down on power, stalling several times as we try to turn round and as we are exhausted from the days driving we decide to find somewhere to park up for what remains of the night and get some sleep before we have to decide whether Marvin is well enough to continue.
Settling down in the car with a drink each from the cool box all we can hear is the humming from the power cables above us and very soon we are asleep
(P.S. Total russian traffic police stops: 13. Total fines 100 roubles... or £2!)