When planning this entire tour the initial plan was to take a ferry from Finland to Estonia. After a while though, I started thinking of Russia. I mean, it would be a shame to come this close to Saint Petersburg and then simply pass it by unvisited.
In a way, I compared it to Rome in 2013. Beforehand I was apprehensive, but I figured I just couldn't get so close to Rome and then pussy out because of the possible nightmare traffic. In the end, the mental traffic of Rome was brilliant fun, eventually making the visit to the Roman city centre one of the best decisions of the trip.
So naturally, I started looking into what it would take for me to visit Russia. First thing on the list was, ofcourse, a visa - I could get one for 3 weeks, and after arranging the paperwork I received my visa a month before departure. This, I was to learn, was the easy part.
Because now that I was actually getting close to the border, there was the thing of actually getting into Russia... something a visa facilitates, but doesn't guarantee. As it is, border officers still have the power to deny you entrance, visa be damned... and with the political relations between the Netherlands and Russia being as frosty as they were thanks to the Ukraine Crisis, things could very well get messy.
First though, I had to get to the border itself. I was still in Kuopio, and my nerves were already stockpiling on adrenaline for the days to come.
Departing from the camp site, everyone that had received me in such brilliant fashion the day before was still vast asleep.
And after proving to the reception desk why I didn't need the code for the barriers...
...I was on my way to the last stop till Russia - Lappeenranta.
It wasn't going to be a long riding day at all, and with the roads as they were it basically turned this day into a liaison.
That's a fancy Dakar word for 'nothing-to-see-just-go-from-A-to-B'
With just one break to fill the Beast up, just a few miles of lovely dual carriageway kept me from...
...the city of Lappeenranta.
As so many cities in Finland it's sided by a lake, making for some nice recreation.
After some browsing, I found myself a hotel with proper parking. Whilst doing so, I also laid eyes on the first Russian women of the trip... but shamefully, they looked like they had undergone a few rebuilds in their time.
I hoped this wasn't a sign of things to come...
During the afternoon I wandered around the city centre, and thought about tomorrow. Ofcourse, plenty of people had expressed their worries at the venture into Russia prior to the trip, but I'm not really in for passing by on something because it's risky. Just take every necessary precaution, keep the eyes open, and I would be alright.
Besides, we only know our limits once we try and push them, after all... and I felt that if I can ride Albania and Rome, I could do Russia too.
In the hotel, I checked on all the paperwork (passport, visa, Green Card, vehicle registration), and still a bit nervous I went to bed.
The next morning, the adrenaline was already pumping upon leaving the bed. On the motorway, that only got worse.
Let alone when I left the motorway...
...to ride the road that would bring me to Russia. Getting closer and closer, I saw more and more signs in Cyrillic lettering, and soon enough...
...it was time for the border.
This stop went just fine. I just had to show them my passport, and that was all.
So when I left the compound and saw this sign, part of me celebrated, but the other part felt like this had been way too easy.
No wonder, as I wasn't done yet. As it turned out, the border was a bit like the one of Albania; first you have to leave one country (which was at the Finnish compound you can see at the top of this sattelite photo), then there's a few miles of no-man's land before you get to a second compound to enter the other country.
And indeed, after a few miles of unmarked road...
..I got to the Russian side of the border.
This is where things become a bit complicated. I'm going to try and make it as clear as I can, so bear with me.
I was now coming from the top of this picture on the left yellow road (arrow indicates direction of traveling). There were two lines, each of which had their own passport control. However, my passport control was unoccupied, so I had to go to the booth of the other line, marked on the above picture with the number 1.
I went with my passport to Booth 1, and upon seeing my passport, the lady (let's call her Officer 1) grabbed an A5-size form, and along with my passport handed it to me, signalling with her hands that I should fill it in. It was a so-called 'Migration form'.
As the things asked on this form were also amongst those required for my visa I tried to point the visa out to Officer 1, but to no avail - I had to fill this in. Alright then.
As she didn't have any pens, I then walked to the Beast to grab my own, and filled in the form there and then. Upon completing it, I looked questioningly at the officer in charge of the barrier (Officer 2), who pointed at another officer located in Booth #2 (Officer 3). Officer 3 gestured to come to to his booth now, and so I did.
With my passport, vehicle registration and migration form I then entered a room where Officer 4 was sitting in a booth. She handed me two forms to fill in - the first of which was in Russian. My Russian is a bit rusty, so just using gestures and a stenciled copy of a filled in form she tried to help me along. Meanwhile, a row of people was gathering behind me. I apologized, but the simple reply was 'Ohh no problem. It's normal!'
One of the things required on the form was the VIN number of the Beast, but that part of the vehicle registration was still in my top case. I didn't feel like abandoning my passport in the booth and possibly enraging border officers, so lucky for me then that I know the Beast's VIN number (all 17 characters of it) by heart. Didn't figure that could also draw attention to me, but alright.
After completing all the forms, Officer 4 put a million stamps in a million places, and accompanied by an indifferent 'OK' she handed me everything tucked into my passport. Officer 2 was now standing next to me, to accompany me to the Beast to see whether the VIN number I had given was the actual VIN number of the bike.
Ofcourse it was. With an added 'Okay' he handed me all the paperwork, opened the barrier...
...and off I was. The final checkpoint waved me through, and soon enough...
...I could finally say I had entered the Russian Federation.
After all the bureaucracy at the border I felt a sheer excitement as I did the first miles.
I was above all else cautious of what lay ahead though, as I too had seen numerous clips on Youtube reminding me that Russian drivers are in a class of their own when it comes to insanity.
The first few miles weren't bad at all though. Nice tarmac, hardly any traffic... it was good going.
That was all to change once I entered the motorway though. Immediately, I was stuck behind a car tailgating a lorry that had a loose tarp flapping about.
This was the first actual instance where I reckoned that the Albanians were not alone in their overtaking madness.
Ofcourse, I have learned a thing or two from my Albanian encounters, and I was sure to put my training to some good use.
As you can see, these motorways have a hard shoulder. Strictly speaking these are for emergencies, but here in Russia, it was simply used as an extra lane in case anyone wanted to pass.
The slower traffic would swerve right a bit, leaving you enough room to pass without incident. In the case of oncoming traffic, also the traffic coming the other way would swerve into their respective emergency lane should their be cars on their side of the road. Be advised though: sometimes you have to make way for oncoming traffic yourself... it's not like you want to play chicken with two Russian lorries side by side.
I also became an avid user of this piece of road etiquette, not in the first place of my overtaking habits, but also because of the vast number of speeding drivers on these roads. I would just swerve to the right, the car passed me, and Bob's your uncle.
I even noticed that drivers thank you for swerving right, simply by flashing their left-right indicators or hazards a few times. Very cool.
There were also numerous police checkpoints along the way, which seemed to be there for lorries mainly.
Then, it was time to fill up.
The way it works here in Russia is quite different from how it works elsewhere in Europe. You don't first fill up and then pay, it's precisely the other way around.
You park up at the pump, go inside the shop, pay for the amount you think you're going to need after which the pump is released and you can fill up for the amount you have specified.
But ofcourse, being the ignorant tourist that I am on these trips, I didn't know all that yet. So after fruitless attempts to fill up I worked out with a pump attendant (once again, with gestures) that I first had to go inside and pay before I could silence the Beast's thirst for gasoline.
The cashiers didn't speak English, but soon enough the guy waiting behind me volunteered as an interpreter.
But that wasn't even half of the fun I would have today.
Because when I converged upon St Petersburg, there were also tollroads... and with it, toll attendees! As I tried to get my wallet back into my coat again I tried to learn some Russian whilst I was at it, asking what 'goodbye' was in Russian.
She didn't seem to understand though, and laughingly she pointed at the line of cars behind me.
Toll for motorcycles on these roads mostly amounts to 40 rubles, and as there are 48 rubles to a Euro, I was surprised I had to pay anything at all. Mind you, for roads like these, I'm happy to spend some money.
Soon enough, I was entering the vast city of Saint Petersburg. It's Russia's second-largest city after Moscow, harbors nearly 5 million people and is larger than Rome.
And I was planning to go to its city centre, oh dear.
I first thought I could just ride this road into town, but then I noticed...
...it hadn't been finished yet.
Now it really became apparent to me that I was entering city traffic, and the traffic in Russia can best be described as what happens if you take the traffic from Rome, remove the scooters and speed it up with 50%. Anything goes.
However, there was one thing of a slightly more pressing nature at hand:
I didn't know where the hell I was going.
Yeah, I was in St Petersburg, that was all fine and dandy... but because I hadn't seen any roadnumbers since the city limits, I didn't know whether the road I was following was the right one.
So I pulled in the first petrol station I came across, and asked a pump attendant for directions.
Using my city map, small descriptive words, numbers and gestures, we established roughly where I was, and how I needed to ride in order for me to enter the city centre.
This was going to be good.
Taking a break, I couldn't really fathom I was now at the epicentre of one of Russia's largest cities.
Palace Square, Saint Petersburg.
Getting out of there was also quite a task. I had to take a huge detour before I was heading in the right direction, leading me right through the city centre traffic.
But after 5 gazillion traffic lights and sweating like a pig in the 30+ degree city heat...
...I was on my way to the southern city limits.
But not before nearly being squashed by a truck, ofcourse.
After all the mayhem in the city centre, I was aching for some proper riding again.
The gods of gasoline saw fit to grant me my wish.
Huzzah for Quadruple carriageway awesomeness!
But ofcourse, I wasn't quite out of the woods just yet... as my next problem unfolded itself.
You see, I can read Cyrillic up to a certain degree...
...but if you're going 100 kph and you need to decipher one of these signs in a matter of seconds, that's where things start getting tricky.
I assumed that the road going straight on would bring me on course for the Estonian capital of Tallinn, as the sign seemed to hint at that particular city's name.
Things went pretty well, but when I noticed the name 'Ivangorod' coupled with an oncoming offramp...
..I thought it best to double-check my suspicions at the side of the highway.
And wouldn't you know it, I was right on the money. Ivangorod is the name of the city on the Northern border crossing with Estonia.
The offramp was a joy in itself - it led to the onramp of the motorway to Ivangorod, but said onramp was semi-blocked by a guy changing a tire right in the middle of the road.
Suffice to say, it didn't even surprise me anymore.
I thought about where to stop for the night. Strictly speaking, the plan had been to spend the night in St Petersburg, but it was a nice day, the riding went brilliantly... and with Ivangorod being as close as it was, I thought about crossing into Estonia already.
Meanwhile, I reckoned it would also be nice to stop for petrol somewhere... with the prices as they are in Russia. Here, an illustration:
I used the pump on the right. As you can see, a litre of Euro 95 goes for 34.50 rubles here. With 12 litres added to the tank that brought the total price to 414 rubles.
There's 48 rubles to 1 euro. You do the math.
After that, I set my sights for the Estonian border.
I remained vigilant though. SMIDSY swerves were the name of the day...
...as well as the odd 'Albanian overtake'.
Then, it was time for the second border crossing of the day. Enter Ivangorod.
Once again, I'm going to try and give you a little insight how things went... because still unbeknownst to me, this border crossing was to leave an impression I wasn't soon to forget.
Here's the border in question. The border itself is the river Narva, which is sided on the Russian side by the town of Ivangorod, and on the Estonian side by its namesake city.
Now, let's take a closer look at how the border has been built up:
Just like the crossing with Finland, there are two border compounds to negotiate before you can enter Estonia. First, you have to go through the Russian compound (Checkpoints 1, 2, 3 and 4), and afterwards you have the Estonian compound (Checkpoints 5, 6 and 7)
I approached the first checkpoint (#1), still a little bit unsure whether it was a good idea to do another Russian border crossing. It was 4 pm now, and would there be any holdup, I ran the risk of having to ride in night time, something I never do on a big international tour as the chances of an accident are just too great.
Checkpoint 1 was quite straightforward. Just a passport check, and the barrier went up.
Then, it was on to Checkpoint 2.
This time, I had to give my passport, vehicle registration and entry form (you know, that one with the VIN number). After digging everything up and handing them over, I was okay-ed again. Onwards to Checkpoint 3.
And that's where the shit hit the proverbial fan.
Coming to the booth at Checkpoint 3 I once again surrendered my documents. The officer present (I shall name her Officer A) carefully investigated my passport, my registration, my entry form... and then asked someone else for a second look. Shortly after, even a second man came in the booth to have a look.
Then I was approached by Officer B, who brandished one of those huge Russian police hats and signalled me to come with him. Together with Officer A and her minions, they accompanied me to a room of which the doors could only be opened from the outside. Officer B looked at me threatingly, and opening up my passport he uttered the simple words: 'Stamp... stamp?'
I tried to make clear to him that I was of the impression everything was in order when I entered Russia, but most of my words weren't understood as they didn't seem to speak English. They then asked me where I entered the country, but naturally I didn't know the name of the crossing in question. I offered to show them on my map though, and after initially being denied to go to my bike to get my map, they reluctantly allowed it.
After I showed them where I crossed, Officer A & B disappeared with their minions (and my passport, registration and entry form) behind one of those combination-lock doors. I was left alone in that locked room, not knowing for how long I had to wait, unable to leave, whilst the sun was heating the room up to a degree where I just needed to take my gear off.
I have felt better, I must admit. I even felt taking a risk when I took this picture, as there were cameras around. The only instance I was allowed to leave the room was when Officer C wanted to get my bike out of the way, as it was now blocking a tourniquet... under his supervision I pushed The Beast inbetween checkpoint 2 and 3.
After waiting in that room for 90 minutes, Officer B came out with a phone. He didn't say anything, he just handed it to me. The voice at the other end said he "didn't speak English", upon which he continued in Russian. I then said I didn't speak Russian, which prompted the question whether I spoke German. 'Ein bisschen'.
Remember that migration form I told you about? Well that's where the problem was at.
Using broken German we came to the understanding that back at the Finnish border, I should've gone back with my filled-in form to Booth 1 to get an entry stamp in my passport. Booth 2, as it turned out, was just for customs... and as a result, we were now in the strange situation it was legal for The Beast to exit Russia, but not for me as I didn't have an entry stamp in my passport.
I explained to him that the officers present had directed me to Booth 2, but the voice at the other end of the line told me that 'those officers were not from passport control'. I then proceeded by saying that I didn't know that, and if everyone tells me things are 'OK' and the barrier goes up, then naturally I assume things to be OK.
He understood, and our little German conversation was done.
Officer B then returned, looked at me like a hawk eyeing up its next meal, and asked: 'What he say?', stoically keeping his eyes locked at me as I retold the story. He then disappeared behind the combination lock, only to return half an hour later with my administration. He escorted me out of the room, and towards the Beast. I then had to fill in the other half of my Migration form, after which I had to pay Officer A at Checkpoint 3 another visit.
She looked less than thrilled at the sight of my presence, I must say... and upon reviewing my passport, she still phoned a colleague to make sure it was now OK for me to leave. After a 10 minute phone call, she hung up, stamped my passport, and reluctantly handed it back, saying 'Bye-bye' in probably the most cynical way possible.
I had been detained for 2 hours, but now I was finally free to go.
I had been detained for 2 hours, but now I was finally free to go.
Good ol' Russian bureaucracy, what a joy.
After getting through the passport check at Checkpoint 4...
...I could finally cross the river, into Estonia.
Being an EU borderpost, this was a breeze in comparison. An officer collected my passport, went into the booth you see to the right, where I could later collect my passport again.
Riding into Estonia, it was 7 pm in the evening. I didn't care that much about the time though... I just felt an immense relief at being free again after my 2 hour detention.
Thankfully, it wasn't all too long until I found a place to stay as well.
I even had Dutch neighbors! Paulien and Anna, two art majors, were doing their own Baltic tour and upon hearing of my antics of the day gave me the beach chair on their patch of land.
They even saw fit to grace me with an accompanying palm tree!
Tomorrow, it was time to venture further into Estonia. I didn't know yet though that the drama was far from over...