50 Shades of Grey Tarmac

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Alexander Rogan

Intrepid, ‘Angleski’ Moscow resident and daring driver Alexander Rogan drives to places few of us have dared to. In this article, he continues his journey from where we left him at the border with Latvia, at the end of his article in the Spring 2015 issue (Ed).

I arrived at the Russian Latvian border crossing and spent 3 hours being processed by the two Customs authorities. The Russians were quick and the Latvians obtusely slow. Our queue could have been processed in under 15 minutes but it was ‘Little Fuhrer’ mentality that day. No smiles. No ‘welcome to Latvia, have a nice day’s.

Leaving the border region, the E22 runs from the Russian frontier towards Riga. It was a narrow grey, dilapidated road. A painful patchwork of repairs and holes waiting to be repaired. Construction nirvana for the Navvies, or not, depending on your work ethic. My speed was low as I navigated constant switchback corners and tight bends.

The road was surrounded by small green fields and abundant small woods. The latter displayed a greater variety of trees than in Russia. I passed an overgrown silver birch wood. Pretty but tatty, this was not a wilderness just unkempt and uncared for. The fields looked rundown. The ditches were not maintained. The edges of the roads were falling apart. The place is crumbling. Even the HT posts, three 20’ lengths of wood knocked into a tripod, are slimy-green, starting to decay. This unloved region has had no investment in years.

The sky was low and grey. Dark clouds covered the horizon and the drizzle was constant.

The houses were quaint and small. There was an air of dilapidation. Smallholdings were surrounded by barns, many ruined. In between the hamlets I saw derelict factories. There was no vandalism. They were just big, empty shells. Each set a hundred metres from the road. Blank, dark windows seeing nothing. It looked lost and forlorn.

Apart from the derelict factories and their concrete awfulness, everything was wooden. All the houses were wood. There was an occasional nod to the 21st century with satellite dishes but any semblance of modernity was dashed by the tin roofs. There was uniformity even down to the pond-green paint on exterior walls. Green was prevalent everywhere.

I left the town of Rēzekne and took the E262/A13, heading west. This road was bad. The ruts were filled with rainwater and the potholes sent jarring crashes through the car. The impacts were impossible to avoid. It ran straight like a Roman road but without the build quality. While straight, it was anything but level. Latvian road life runs on an adverse camber.

Railway line crossings were abundant, harking back to the Soviet era when the iron road was king. Most crossings had no barriers and were un-manned. Some had no warning signs, so caution was key.

50 kilometres from the border I hit road works. The E262 to Lithuania sounds like one of the great intra Europe highways and when you look at the map it stares back like a bloody great Autobahn. But the reality is very different. I saw no logic in ripping up every other kilometre of usable road. There were traffic lights, queues and ‘off-roading’ on crushed aggregate and mud. Signs were abundant saying ‘no overtaking.’ There was barely enough room for two oncoming vehicles to pass. The ‘uneven surface – next five kilometres’ signs were ironic; they were planted every five kilometres. The road was absolutely, bloody awful.

It took 2 hours to travel 90 kilometres to the town of Malta. Forget images of Mediterranean sunshine and blue waters. The Latvian Malta was not quite a one-horse town but pretty close. There were the pervasive wooden houses. Plus, all I can describe as ‘dodgy’ brick built houses. Not a brick built house built by a builder but built by someone who does not know how to lay a brick. As in ‘no straight edges or spirit levels were used in the construction of this building.’ It looked like the wrong type of spirit was used in construction and most of that was spilt. I saw aluminium clad houses, derelict houses, neglected houses that looked as if they had started to fall down when they were finished. Corrugated tin roofs, roofs made of wooden slats, a yellow house followed by an orange house. They looked ‘home- made.’ There was not a straight wall anywhere. I saw one house where the front door was hanging at an incredible angle and the doorframe was cut to fit, also at an angle.

I had been travelling for over 12 hours and nowhere near my first layover point. A combination of adverse weather, bad roads and ‘no roads’ had cut my anticipated average speed by at least half.

Clear of Malta and road works for a while I saw the road heading west into the distance. It should have made driving easier. However, the highway was like a long ‘Filbert Street’ of San Francisco fame. I thought I saw clear ahead but then I was on the brow of a steep drop and plunging down. Not quite roller coaster but completely blind… there could have been 30 cars or a dozen trucks hidden in the dips. This made driving at normal speeds a ‘leap’ of faith. Even more interesting were the suicidal cars overtaking trucks, on my side of the road. I soon got the hang of the ‘arm out of window’ gesticulations as each unwanted drama unfolded before me. Just like home.

100 kilometres from the Lithuanian border and the scenery began to change. Trees were more concentrated and of less variety. Timber was being harvested, the first sign of an agricultural industry.

Much like home, all was not so well with the ecology. As I crossed the river Rušonīca, a feed between two great lakes either side of the E262, I glanced down from the bridge and saw a great stagnant pond. The river was not flowing anywhere, even in the heavy downpour. It was a marine version of the unkempt woods and fields. Like agriculture, the marine habitat was low on a list of priorities.

After the Rušonīca I arrived at the village of Dubna, another one-horse town. Pulling up at the red lights, signifying the latest stretch of road building, I saw a bow legged derelict stagger across the road, totally trashed. A cross between a badly dressed Marty Feldman and Woody Allen, he paused in front of the town’s ‘produkti’ shop, scratching his posterior. He was a great advert for a happening place and summed up the locale entirely.

I left Dubna as the sun started to drop. The Latvian countryside looked pretty and very small. Tiny bales of hay dotted the fields. These were changing and starting to open up. It was as if the further from the Russian border, the greater the industry and investment.

After Dubna I entered the town of Malinova and yet more traffic lights, signifying yet more road works. More driving on crushed stone and mud. The rain had not reached Malinova, so great clouds of choking dust covered the road as I drove on the aggregate.

Malinova was large by the standards thus far and a sprawling dive. It was home to hideous remnants of Soviet architecture, in the form of three storey apartment blocks. These were flat roofed with aluminium sidings covering the balconies. They were complete with the beige brickwork, favoured by Soviets told to ‘throw up’ housing. All the homes sported corrugated tin roofs, even the Church I passed had a blue tin roof.

I passed what looked like a Military memorial, dated 1943. The Red Army rolled through a year later, so it may have been a reference to the Latvian Legion, enrolled by the Nazi invaders that year and who fought as part of the Waffen-SS.

It was very early on into my journey, perhaps only 9 hours in total and I began to question the wisdom of driving. I also questioned the differences between the Baltic States I had visited. Estonia had roads, working roads. Lithuania had the same. Latvia on the other hand had crap roads, bad roads or no roads. Whilst I pondered and bounced along the E262, it threw up huge spumes of dust. Estonia had a working infrastructure, why was there such a difference between the two countries?

Lociki was the next habitation. I considered the similarities between Latvian roads and Russia as I drove. There were some similarities but this was much worse. Even Smolensk was not as bad as what I was experiencing and that town got the civic ‘hand me downs’ from Nizhny Novgorod that had already been handed down from Moscow.

Lociki, population circa 1,340, started with a long line of shabby low garages adjacent to the road and then, looking very incongruous, three brand new office blocks. They were immediately followed by some 5-storey Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. Ugh. Some of the apartment blocks looked derelict and then, just behind, some painted pale blue and obviously in use.

Without exception, the towns along the E262 were ugly. Fortunately, the countryside retained some charm but the town planning and construction gave zero thought to the aesthetic.

Lociki is a former Soviet military airbase and was home to MiG fighter-bomber aircraft. The air base’s technical infrastructure, runway and buildings were left over and were the basis for the construction of a new Daugavpils International Airport. However, the funding never arrived and the plan was shelved.

As I left Lociki, I thought that if you could export ‘dilapidation,’ the locals would be rich.

I passed concrete bunkers and pillboxes, all evidence of the military past. Lociki oozed ‘soviet-ness’ and, apart from the incompatible new offices, was stuck in a time warp. The housing adjacent to the road was prescribed Soviet-style or in the process of falling down wooden hut.

On-coming traffic now had their headlights on as the gloaming approached. The atmosphere became oppressive and it felt as though the trees were closing in. Rank after rank of fir trees, impenetrable gloom in between, guarded the road. I recalled the British black-comedy film ‘Severance,’ starring Danny Dyer and Laura Harris. A bunch of co-workers supposedly on a team-building weekend in Hungary get knocked off, one by one by east European psychotics brandishing machetes and the like. This place epitomised a mix of old-Soviet and horror.

The woods were unfriendly, no impression of a Rivendell hiding elves or hobbits. This was home for gasmask-garbed fiends, wielding chainsaws. It was not somewhere where you wanted to breakdown. There were no white lines on the road, no streetlights.

The scenery changed before Daugavpils and the woods became less repressive. There was now space between the tress, giving them a chance to flourish. The road ran long and straight, the pylons tall and steel… Latvia was a tad more normal to my European eye. Every 10 kilometres or so there would be a break in the woods and lakes, looking very picturesque. This was a long way from Lociki and not only in distance, like a Soviet-horror film set transforming into something gentler. The road, however, remained bad.

I crossed the Daugava River via an iron girder bridge. Its twin, albeit far rustier and dilapidated, carried a single rail track. No trains were evident but the E262 followed alongside the railway towards the west.

The trees disappeared as the countryside morphed into gentle rolling fields. Ubiquitous bales of hay scattered across the meadows. Pretty though unkempt, looking like a garden left fallow.

My thoughts returned to my drive and whether I should have flown. Would I recommend the overland trip? If you are a masochist, do the drive, because it bloody hurts. Your nether regions will take an absolute pounding.

Last but not least, if you are a car manufacturer, you could save an absolute fortune on not building a test track. Bring your car to the E262 in Latvia, if it survives Latvia it can survive absolutely anywhere. The road is a truly dreadful patchwork quilt of repair on top of repair awaiting repair. Inimitably, it is quite colourful in a monochrome way – 50 shades of grey.