With the dawn of 2016 came a yearning to do something daring and difficult. In February 2016, I read an article about the 10 longest highways in the world and the Trans-Siberian — the third longest — caught my eye. I started thinking, “This is something that has not been attempted before from India. Why not try and do it?” The Trans-Siberian Highway stretches over 10,000 km from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, across multiple time zones. The difference in time between the two metropolises is seven hours. I decided to start from Vladivostok because I would gain time travelling from east to west, which would help me with more daylight hours for the long stretches I intended to do daily. I completed the trip in 12 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes, logging a daily average distance of about 850km.
Getting started Vladivostok June 3
I would not be able to start without car insurance. You can get it from vendors who sell it from cars at vantage locations. Andrey, my contact in the city, took me to one such ‘car office’. They represent multiple companies and hence, it is easier to shop around for the best policy. After a lot of talk and checking documents the young man suggested that we go to the insurance company office as the car I had was registered outside Russia.
We went to the office of an insurance company and waited for what seemed like ages. Finally, when our turn came I was nervous, because another insurance company had told Andrey over the phone that the car documents had to be translated into Russian and notarised; that would take five days! However, Andrey stepped up and patiently explained the situation to the pretty, young executive and helped her to fill up the forms online. It so transpired that she had Mahindra as a make in the online format. That was indeed a surprise. Moreover, she told me that she had been reading a translated work of Jhumpa Lahri, an Indian author! The insurance cost me $25; the estimates had ranged from $100 to 200.
Vladivostok to St. Petersburg June 4-16
Speed restrictions are many on Russian roads, especially at places where the highway passes through hamlets. They are ruthlessly enforced, too. I found many squads doing speed checks. I was stopped by one such squad.
A young constable told me in Russian that I was over the speed limit of 50kmph. I told him that I am from India and on an expedition in Siberia. The young man called his colleague who knew a bit of English. The older gentleman immediately said, “Oh yes, India-Russia good friends.” I took the cue and showed him decals on the car of the route from India to Russia through Myanmar and China. He was mighty impressed. By this time, the young man had moved away, knowing that the conversation was not going to result in any fines. I was asked to produce my driving license and car documents. After a cursory examination of both, I was waved on.
I reached Khabarovsk early afternoon after driving 800km from Vladivostok. I had not had any lunch during the 10 hour drive and therefore I decided on an early dinner, even though I did not want anything heavy. I walked around looking to get a snack and beer. I crossed the street from the hotel where I was staying and found a small kiosk on the sidewalk. I saw sausage buns, breads and large samosas. I picked up a samosa and a sausage bun. The owner of the kiosk was a smiling, grey haired man. As I was paying for the snacks he asked where I was from. When I mentioned India he broke into a rendition of Mera Jhoota Hai Japani, Yeh Patloon Englishstani'. “Who can forget Raj Kapoor?” he asked. It was Khadir from Kyrgyzstan, who had migrated to Khabarovsk eight years ago and has been running the kiosk there ever since.
He asked me into his small kiosk to take a selfie with me. I was a bit embarrassed as many customers were waiting in line. However, Khadir asked his customers to wait till he finished the selfie with “my Indian friend”.
When I was ready to leave after paying for the samosa and bun Khadir handed me a freshly minted Khabarovsk coin as a keepsake. He said that the coin would bring me luck on the expedition and help remember it in the future.
I was a bit apprehensive about a halt in Mogocha because of a Russian phrase: “God created Sochi, Satan Mogocha.” The remoteness of the town and its harsh climate are the reasons for the saying. I reached the Yalta Inn, where I had made a reservation through Booking.com. I was in for the rudest shock. The inn keeper kept saying “Nyet”.
In time, I understood that there was no booking for me because he has no Internet access! I was stranded and, without knowing the local lingo, I was lost. Therefore, I decided to drive onwards to Chita, which was another 600km away. It was 2:30pm by then and I estimated that it would take me about seven hours if road conditions were good. It was a tough decision, but necessitated by the extraordinary circumstances.
The saving grace was that the light held till I reached Chita at 8:30pm. The hotel where I had a booking for the next day welcomed me with an empty room for the night. A drive of 1,471km in a day helped shave one day off the schedule.
I was booked to stay at the Edelweiss Hotel in Novosibirsk. I reached what Google Maps suggested is the location of the hotel, even though I could not see any sign board or indication of the hotel. As luck would have it, there was a large car wash nearby. My car desperately needed it. When the car was taken for "special treatment" because of its condition, I found the hotel.
There was no response to the calling bell. After many anxious knocks, two men came out to inform me that the property was not functioning as it had been closed for renovation over six months back! I could not believe my ears. At this eleventh hour, what could I do? The owner of the car wash realised my situation and offered to take me to two other residences close by. I checked them out and was not impressed. I tried my luck with the booking site once again and found a bargain offer for Marlins Park Hotel near the City Centre.
St. Petersburg June 16
I had booked a single room apartment in St. Petersburg as that was the only one that suited my budget. I reached the apartment address and the security at the gate told me that he could not let me in without the flat number. I did not have that as I had only the name of the apartment.
I kept trying the numbers shared by Booking.com and got the message that the numbers were temporarily suspended. I started to search for alternate accommodation in the vicinity and nothing turned up. That is when I met Karen. He was walking out of the complex and I asked him if he could speak English. He turned out to be a Georgian pursuing his postdoctoral study in endocrinology in St. Petersburg. He understood my situation and reached out to the flat owner, Natasha, on WhatsApp.
When there was no response even after nearly an hour, it was past 9pm, he said he could take me to another hotel where I could try for accommodation. As we were nearing the hotel, Natasha called Karen and told him that she had sent a guy to the apartment who would take care of my booking. We returned to the apartment complex and found a guy waiting for us. I thanked Karen for the company and assistance. Where God sends His guardian angels from we will never know; this one was from Georgia.
* Crossing into Russia from China via the Hunchun-Kraskino border is the biggest challenge
* The Trans-Siberian Highway stretches over 10,000km from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, across multiple time zones
* Dense forests on the Amur Highway and its road condition are challenging
* Double-check booked accommodation as some may not even be physically available
* Carry certified translated documents of the car and personal identification. These would be required for obtaining car insurance and for shipping the car back to India
* Travel along the highway during summer to get the best road conditions and more of the outdoors