Imagine a landmass one-eighth of the world’s total inhabited area. A country almost the size of the continent of South America. Bigger than Antarctica. Twice the size of Australia. The Godzilla of nations. Imagine: Russia.
Just a thought of the sheer size of this country is enough to numb the brain. You don’t need to be a wizard to know that with its superlative vastness comes the most amazing variety of experiences. And, challenges. So we made a plan. Have a good supper, sleep well, get up fresh, leave early morning from Baku for the border crossing, do the exit-entry formalities, and soon we’ll be in the land of Rasputin. So we thought.
First, there were the usual issues about getting up early. DJ seemed to have no issues with that. But, Jammer was anxious of the long day ahead, and wanted to sleep some more to see the day through. So, finally, after finishing breakfast at 8 am, the three motley men and the Black Beast aka FJ Cruiser were on the road and enjoying the drive and the vistas.
Secondly, as we took a lot of breaks and detours, it was an hour past noon by the time we reached Samur Border. Samur is a tiny village of over 2,000 residents on the Azerbaijan side. It is named after River Samur that flows by it through Dagestan in Russia, finally becoming one with the Caspian Sea.
To our disappointment, nobody on the Azerbaijan border control side seemed to speak a word of English. We had to resort to using hand-signs, and symbols, nods and gestures, smiles and long faces to communicate. To get a complete handle on the entire exit procedure in this manner took a long, long time. Then, the formalities kicked in – lots of security screenings, filling forms, verification, stamping and finally immigration. No wonder it took us the best part of two hours to say goodbye to Azerbaijan.
Crossing a bridge after exiting the Azerbaijan territory, we slowly approached the Russian border control. Here, we were asked to empty the car (again!) for a thorough screening by the customs officials. From unloading the car’s stuff, to carrying the luggage to a different place (by the way, we have over 200 kg of goods in the car), get through the scrutiny, repacking the bags and boxes to placing them back in the car, and all this going through an endless queue of people trying to cross over into Russia, it was quite a hassle. Add to the mix that just like their Azeri counterparts, the Russian officers and staff too had absolutely no clue of English (or, they pretended it that way). With our usual channels of communication (speak, write, gesture) failing, we resorted to Google’s audio translator technology on our smartphone to deliver our messages across to them. Our “smartness” seems to have amused one of the officers; he smiled and wanted to respond using the same medium. This translator was our lifeline at that time, and helped us get through the ordeal in slightly under 5 hours. Finally, we got everything sorted out by 6 pm.
So, we were finally entering Russia. Yay!
By then, it had already started to get dark. Knowing that we had a delay situation, DJ quickly pulled up some hotel options on his smartphone, while Jammer bought car insurance in parallel.
Upon crossing over into the Dagestan region of Russia, it was already dark so we couldn’t take any photos there. So we decided to keep driving.
‘Where to?’ was the question going on in our heads, as as we did not want to end up driving in the night. We recalled the advice of multiple travelers not to drive at night in Russia, due to safety reasons (risk of road accidents due to trucks). Our GPS showed that the nearest town – Derbent – where we hoped to find a decent hotel, was 70 km away. It took us an hour-and-a-half of driving to reach, but the we enjoyed the ride listening to the silky songs of Kishore Kumar playing on the car stereo. At one point, shivers went down our spine when our car’s high beam pierced the pitch dark of the New Moon night to reveal a woman crossing the road. A sudden screeching of the brakes followed, as we stopped just about a meter in front of her. She looked at us once in a slow glance, and simply walked past the car, quickly disappearing into the darkness.
Once at the hotel, we quickly went downstairs for dinner. Some people who had seen our car parked outside, asked if that “big car” belonged to us. We weren’t surprised by this as it is unusual to see a Toyota FJ Cruiser on the Russian roads. They were delighted to know about our Dubai to Switzerland Road Trip. A conversation followed, and they instantly warmed up to us, and helped us with important information and advice on the route and the current road conditions.
Among the hotel guests that night were a friendly couple, to whom we gifted a book and some souvenirs from Dubai. They gave us a sticker for our car which looks like a local Russian car registration plate 🙂 Let’s Drive is making new friends all along!
It was a tiring day which had drained us all out. We were also nervous that a lot of time and miles had been lost today. I felt a sudden urge to take the wheel and start driving the miles, right now, until I fell asleep. Got instantly reminded of Frost’s magical lines:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
But sanity prevailed on me. So, I am off to bed now. Hey, all you worries of the lost miles – meet me tomorrow, as the morning sun climbs it way up the blue skies.
Next Stop: Volgograd. In sha Allah.