Russia isn’t just the largest nation on our planet but also one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Unique in culture, landscapes, climate, traditions, food, people, politics and even their mighty army! We planned our first expedition to Russia in January, the peak winter season when it is normal for the temperature to be in the range of -10 to -30 in most parts of the country. Our plan was to drive from Moscow to St Petersburg taking the off beaten tracks, the forest roads, the snowy tracks and basically take “The Road Less Travelled”.
We put together a group of travelers who were crazy enough (like us) to experience the harsh winter of Russia and together we landed in Moscow on 21st January 2017 to experience one of the best journeys of our lives. After the stern custom officers cleared us and we collected our bags, the mind numbing chill of early morning Moscow winter welcomed us. We made our way to the plush Baltschug Kempinski Hotel and after a few hours of settling down, we decided to head out and explore Moscow.
We started with a tour of the Kremlin and Red Square. Images of Gorbachev saluting the Russian troops, Boris Yeltsin on a tank hailing the beginning of a new era in Russian history, cannot help but make you realize how important a role the Russian Army has played in shaping the past, the present and even the future of this mighty country. On our way to the Kremlin museum we witnessed changing of the guards at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. An eternal flame dedicated to the war heroes; so many sons of Mother Russia, remembered for ever. We walked around the central square in Moscow for the rest of the evening admiring the architecture, lights and fun fair around the ice skating rink in the middle of the Red Square. After a traditional dinner in a Ukrainian Restaurant where the group of 14 travelers got to know each other better while toasting on shots of “Samagon”, a strong but smooth homemade Russian liquor, we briefed the group of what’s in store over the next 7 days.
The following morning, we were introduced to our vehicles, the Russian Made UAZ Patriot SUVs. Just like the country, the vehicles were tough and meant business! We took an hour to brand the vehicles and make them “expedition ready” and after a quick pre-departure briefing, the convoy of 5 vehicles rolled out to explore Russia. We stopped for a quick picture of the convoy in front of the Kremlin and slowly rolled out of Moscow, navigating the slippery roads and the never ending Moscow traffic. As soon we left the city and hit the country side, the sight of snow covered trees and fields in both directions welcomed us. Our Russian team leader, Andray, took us off track and gave us a small taste of driving on snow. All the vehicles were put on Low Ratio Gear for better traction and control and slowly, the convoy rolled onto a snow track, driving very carefully and slowly on a white field where the only way to navigate was to follow the tracks left by vehicles that had recently crossed the fields. It was a very exciting beginning for all of us and before we knew, some of our vehicles got stuck in snow! Shovels were brought out, and as some of us got busy shoveling away the snow, the rest of the team got behind and used all their muscle power to push the vehicles out of the snow! It was a firsthand experience of “just another day in the life of a Russian in the winter season” and we loved it!
We carefully navigated our way out of the snow fields and reached Sergiev Posad, one of the most historic and religious places in Russia that is also known as “Russian Vatican”. We visited some beautiful churches where we even got to hear the wonderful choir singing. After seeing the beautiful structures and knowing a bit more about this historic town, we called it a night and the following morning, we continued driving deeper into the country side on our way to Uglich that is part of what’s called the “Golden Ring” of Russia. On our way to Uglich, once again, we took the dirt tracks to get an opportunity to experience the thrill of driving on snow covered fields. Today however, was way more difficult that yesterday because we found ourselves driving through dense forest area that looked completely deserted and as we approached deeper into the terrain, the tracks also disappeared. At one point, we were faced with a fallen tree that blocked our way and the only way to proceed was to cut the tree and clear the road. We took out the axe from our vehicles and got to work. Chopping off a fallen tree in -25 degrees while standing in knee deep snow and wearing possibly all the clothes we had on us, was one of the best experiences of our lives. After all, this is what we had come to Russia for! Road cleared, we continued on our way and made it to Rybinsk after sunset.
By now, we had had many hours of experience driving on snowy terrains and we were all feeling confident about the road ahead. Over the next few days, we had some wonderful experiences driving on extreme snowy conditions in the harsh Russian winter. On one of the days, we drove on the Frozen Volga River for the first time in our lives and saw boats parked in the middle of the river, patiently waiting for the summer to arrive. After ticking the box of driving on a frozen river, it was time to drive on a frozen lake! Well, it was more like “drifting” on a frozen lake. The fact that the temperature was -20 degrees didn’t matter as each one of us had the time of our lives drifting on the glass like surface of the frozen Lake Ilmen. We revved up the engine, spinned the wheels and made sharp turns to drift our SUVs as much as we could. The lake had become our playground and the adrenalin rush kicked in. A red sunset in the background, reflection of our vehicles on the surface of the lake, a surreal experience of not just walking but driving on a thick, frozen water body made our journey to Russia complete.
But that was not all. After driving for 5 days on snow, we finally made it to St Petersburg. It was shocking to see at least 20 accidents on the way to St Petersburg as the vehicles were slipping on black ice on the highways and it was scary to realize that if even the locals who are so used to the slippery driving conditions of Russia cannot escape sliding away on the highways, what would be our plight? Fortunately, it was only a good warning for us and we reached our hotel in St Petersburg without any incident.
Finally, we said goodbye to our trusted UAZ Patriot Vehicles and were back on foot to explore the absolutely beautiful city of St Petersburg. Walking around the Nevsky Prospekt, looking up at the church of spilled blood, walking past the winter palace and admiralty buildings, one cannot help compare Moscow and St Petersburg. While Moscow has a very raw masculine energy about it, feeling tough and rugged, yet attempting finesse; St Petersburg feels like a grand dame, elegant, sophisticated, opulent and simply beautiful.
Before we concluded our journey through Russia, there was one last surprise which we had saved for the last! The Sherp Vehicle. A locally made tank like vehicle, only 5 Sherp Vehicles exist in the world! A Sherp ATV measures 11 feet long and can climb over obstacles as tall as 27.5 inches, has an indestructible diesel 15.3 gallon 44 horsepower engine from Kubota, weighs 2,866 pounds and can reach speeds of 27.9 mph on land and 3.7 mph in water. It was a surreal experience to ride inside a Sherp. The vehicle is controlled using levers, no steering wheel. As we sat into these monster trucks, the expert driver shouted “brace yourself” as he picked up speed and approached a lake that was not frozen! Splash! The vehicle went into the lake but miraculously, it didn’t sink. It started floating and to our amazement, the driver was casually navigating the car on water! It was one of the best and the most memorable experiences of our lives, and of course, another first on this absolutely amazing journey.
One week in Russia went away quickly. We ate local Russian food every day consisting of a lot of salad and a lot of meat, drank the local Samagon while toasting “nazdarovya” meaning “good health”, drove on frozen rivers and lakes, rode the Sherp, saw the marvelous churches and historic structures, drove on thick snowy terrains for hundreds of kilometers and above all survived the harsh winters of this amazing country. Overall, it was a memorable journey that pushed our limits, it put us in situations we were not used to, it tested abilities that we possessed but were not aware of and most importantly, it brought a team of Indians and Russians together who formed bonds that would last a lifetime.