‘Angleski’ Driver Heads for Latvia

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I turned left onto the main road and immediately ran into heavy traffic. My plan had been to miss rush hour and have a gentle run through north western Russia, up to the Baltics, as stage one of my road trip home, to Bretagne.

The old adage about the plan going awry, the moment you make contact with ‘the enemy’ had never been more apt. The ‘enemy’ in this instance being the 400,000 other Muscovite drivers, all battling their way through Moscow’s notorious traffic.

I sat in the car, glumly contemplating the snarl up in front of me. Not an auspicious start, to a journey I had contemplated over the last decade. After 20 minutes I crawled up on the culprits. Same old, same old. A fool, in a blacked out saloon, had rear ended another, right on a bust intersection. The two drivers, totally ignoring each other and the glares from the passing motorists, were sat on their respective motorcars awaiting the arrival of the police. Chain smoking their ubiquitous cigarettes, they blocked two of the four lanes, making it difficult for vehicles having to navigate the newly made chicane.

Sometimes traffic in Moscow can be surprisingly free flowing and I appreciate, first-hand, the efforts made by Moscow City government to improve the flow through the megalopolis. Exclude the fact that Moscow’s roads cost an exorbitant ten times the price anywhere else. When it works, it works quite well. Equally, when it doesn’t, it is a disaster.

One hour in and 2 klicks from home. Not only that, thanks to the marvellous traffic flow design, I am slowly moving 4 kilometres in the wrong direction, before making a U-turn in the morass and actually getting on my way. By the time I hit the MKAD I am feeling a little punch drunk and seriously questioning the wisdom of such a trek. Only another 4000 kilometres to go.

The MKAD was taken on autopilot. As every other BDSM aficionado knows, and I defy anyone who chooses to drive in Moscow, to consider themselves anything but, the MKAD induces a stupor. Albeit one tempered with sheer terrifying moments of colossal stupidity, as Muscovites attempt to balance the dichotomy of a purchased driving licence and Darwin’s assertion that the quick survive. Combine drivers in over-powered cars with an innate arrogance and no imagination, perfected inept traffic management systems and an absence of law and you have the perfect recipe, for chaos and carnage.

Blood pressure and heart rate dropping I picked up the Volokolamsk Highway, designated M9, and gratefully read the bold sign posts, only 900 kilometres to Riga. My long UK experience of motorway building and never ending repairs, prepared me for the miles of stationary M9 traffic, due to road works with no evident workers. No complaints there.

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Clear of Moscow, I travelled freely, overtaken by pervasive German uber-saloons and pumped up SUV’s, flashing past with bright halogens and snarling tail-pipes. Choosing a more measured path, I reflected on the paradox of history, the Volokolamsk Highway and the omni-present Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

Alexander Bek’s 1944 novel, named The Volokolamsk Highway, described the resolute defence of Moscow, in the terrible slaughter of the Great Patriotic War. It became prescribed reading for the Soviet junior officer Corp and was taken up by revolutionaries globally. Rather than goading the Soviets to die for their country, it motivated them to make the intruder die for his.

Not wishing to practise my Russian discussing violations, with entrepreneurial traffic cops, I arrived at a legal and leisurely pace at Volokolamsk. A small city, some 130 miles from Moscow, it is where Bek’s hero from the War had been stationed. It was also where the motorway abruptly stopped and I was onto regional roads…and then a few hours later…no roads.

The path was definitely well trodden, evidenced by the long lines of articulated trucks in front of me. Deep grooves in the track surface had my car swinging up and down and side to side, as I climbed in and out of the ruts, in a manner more akin to a small boat on a large swell, rather than a go anyway 4×4.

The weather was August warm and the sky was clear, cloudless and a beautiful blue. The passing countryside looked idyllic. Rolling hills of pasture, the ever present Russian silver birch trees and the occasional farm with small, dotted bales of hay and ancient tractors, working the fields became the norm.

Had I not been stuck behind crawling KAMAZ and MAZ trucks belching noxious fumes and throwing up stones, I could probably have enjoyed the warm air. As it was, I had the windows firmly closed, and so entered into the popular road version of Russian roulette, as I attempted to pass overladen trucks on an overused track in an underpowered SUV.

I learned very quickly that timing was everything and that one had to build up a certain level of courage and speed, to overtake each moving chicane and slot neatly in between the moving vehicles. I also learned, to my shame and chagrin, that not all drivers in Russia are the same. The professional truck drivers I was attempting to pass showed a degree of courtesy and care that was absolutely not present in the capital.

I found that the KAMAZ driver would put half his vehicle off the track, giving me space to squeak past. Flicking my hazard lights in thanks, I could pass the convoys of elderly wagons and maintain my way north west. The real danger came from on-coming traffic. Not so much from the fast moving executive types, as experienced closer to Moscow, with the benefit of skid-control and ABS and such-like. The real danger out in the regions was from the ‘on the edge of being out of control’ indigenous types.

As I stood on the brakes of my car, I watched the oncoming Soviet-era Zhighuli drift millimetres under my front bumper, it having failed to navigate the sharp bend, and plough sideways into the field on my right. Angels were watching, as the road was clear, apart from two would-be participants in a Russian tragedy. I swear the driver was swinging a bottle as he hopped out and surveyed his car.

This may partially explain Russia’s dreadful road statistics and why my journey was no relaxing sojourn along The Corniche. Official figures in Russia are oft massaged to create a warmer feeling among the populace. One hopes the road traffic accident statistics are not so played with. Officially there are around 35 thousand deaths per year attributed to road accidents and approximately 275,000 injuries.

Russia’s road traffic mortality rate is five times higher than the EU, twice the United States, higher than in other Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary, and higher than the average for Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) countries.

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I knew all this before I left. It was one of the reasons why I argued with my motor insurance company. Rather than paying a premium, I argued, I should be getting a discount, for the month I would be away. Surely their policies are risk based? Apparently not, so I ended up giving in. On the bright side, in absolute terms the number of deaths is less than both India and China. (Just don’t look at the population statistics too closely).

Similar near misses occurred with frightening regularity as motorists put their lives in the hands of others, displaying a laissez-faire attitude to death. If the innocent managed to avoid a head-on collision with the idiot, then so be it. Such a relaxed stance to one’s mortality represents that Russia does indeed sit betwixt Europe and Asia, dipping her toe into either cultures.

At around 6pm I arrived at the frontier in Pskov Oblast, heralded by long queues of heavy goods trucks, parked on the verge, making the last 10 kilometre approach to the EU border, a cautious one. Truck cab doors would open unpredictably, as drivers would hoist themselves without a thought into the middle of the road. Given that one and all vehicles bore Latvian number plates, the sanctity of life (or rather, the lack of it) had obviously spread beyond Russia to the citizens of the Baltic States as well. Perhaps the mind-set was intrinsically Soviet? Citizens of the former Union, tempered by the horrors of war and slaughter or incarceration by despotic leaders, could well show a devil-may-care attitude to life.

Amongst the huge earth works and road building project of the Zilupe crossing stood a small queue of cars, both Russian and Latvian, waiting in front of the 1940’s-style Border Guards customs post, complete with chevron barrier. Guns and uniforms were much in evidence and I was minded of the bad relations between the diminutive Latvia and its bigger, belligerent neighbour.

Surprise replaced the Government issue poker-face, when he saw my British passport. “Angleski?” Not many Brits pass this way. This, stage one, was easy. It rapidly went down-hill as I was at the tender mercies of the customs service. Stage two was, ostensibly, quite simple. I had to choose the red or green channels. I prevaricated and then, being identified as a Russian registered vehicle, directed to the Green channel. The customs officer approached me and demanded my papers: “Dokumenti!”

I handed over the car-passport, insurance certificates and my driving licence. Nationality thus so identified and the honeymoon was over.

What transpired next was typical by reputation and, for me, galling. The only satisfaction I realised was that both parties completed the transactions, equally frustrated.

It took two hours from arrival at the Russian side of the border to clear the final security check by the Russian F.S.B. Border Guards. These officials were, in complete contrast to previous, thoroughly professional, diligent and polite. The Guard officer insisted in speaking English and bid me a cheerful, good day.

It was with some relief that I approached the Latvian border crossing and I expected a smooth, swift transfer into the European Union. To be honest, I was looking forward to evidence of the rule of law on the highways and a modern working infrastructure.

What can I report? A rude awakening was my reward. It took me 4 hours to cross in Latvia as the local customs officers and border guards operated a ‘go slow’. 50 cars were held in 3 queues and, one by one, called forward. My patience wore thin and I approached the lead official, who strutted in front of the queuing vehicles, with his hands behind his back. Given the open hostility I had seen thus far, I should have expected the vehemence behind the ‘Shto?’ I was still momentarily taken aback. I had seen this type before, in the movies wearing Wehrmacht grey-green…not NATO camouflage.

“What?” I responded, as loudly. “What is the reason for the delay, officer?” I was getting a tad fed up with the continual mistaken identity and thoroughly cheesed off with the waiting which had totally screwed my travel schedule.

“What are you?” What, I correctly assumed, what was my nationality. I waved my passport and reiterated my question. “Too many Russians” was the growled reply. Wow, I thought. There is some grief here, no question. Getting nowhere quickly, I ended up quoting him the inside cover of my passport “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires (my emphasis) ….the bearer to past freely and without let or hindrance.” That and a reference to ‘free passage’ in and through all EU nation states. All delivered in my best ‘received English’ accent. It was a cartoon ‘Englishman abroad’ performance, in response to the cartoon fascist border guard, and it worked.

Not straight away unfortunately. My suggestion that the Latvians visit Dover or Portsmouth and watch UK Customs process 2,500 passengers and over 600 vehicles, disembarking a cross channel ferry, all inside of 60 minutes and learn a lesson or two, did the trick.

The irritating Angleski was hauled out of the queue and, as the clock struck twelve, sent on his way with no niceties or smiles. It had taken 12 hours to cover approximately 600 kilometres. At that rate, I would be home in time for Christmas. Despite the best efforts of the Russian customs officer, the prize for niceties on the frontier went most definitely to Team Russia.

I was now well behind schedule and still looking at a 3,000 kilometre drive as I left the Latvian ‘militarised zone.’