It’s Russian boarder day.
The road was winding and poorly maintained with a thick layer of compacted snow, the occasional blanket of ice exposed the tarmac underneath.
That’s what happens to the roads up here. It rains until it is cold enough for the water to freeze, then the snows come. Such events leave a thin sheet of ice on the tarmac even the road ploughs can’t do much about.
It’s obligatory in Finland to change tyres on your vehicles come winter time. Winter tyres are dotted with metal studs to provide traction. (The reason England’s Highway Code goes to shit when we have a few cm of snow). In Russia though, we weren’t sure what condition of road we’d be driving, and what safety measures would be in place.
We were driving through virgin forests. Perfectly untouched nature. Reindeer, moose and elk tracks lined the edge of the forest, but we weren’t fortunate enough to see any wildlife on this drive.
The forest spans from Ivalo in Finland, where we left this morning, all the way to Murmansk, Russia – the largest city above the Arctic Circle. This forest was the location of the Russian invasion into Finland in the 1939 ‘Winter War’. This forest and their knowledge of the wilderness was the reason the Finnish were able to beat back the Russian invaders. It all happened right here.
We passed a huge section of forest with obvious fire damage, evidently in July 2018 this road was closed for several weeks due to the fires.
We approached the Russian boarder around 0830. We pulled over out of sight and had some food from the cab snap box, we were expecting this process to take a little while. We also took this opportunity to remind ourselves, these people are like no other people we have encountered while travelling before. We would not be able to use humour and distraction to enable us to have some element of control over this situation like we are able in Africa. We would have no control, and boy did they make damn sure we knew it.
We approached the first barrier and presented our passports so they could establish we had a visa and relevant documentation to enter the country. Satisfied with our paperwork so far, we entered a controlled compound and the barrier was lowered behind us.
Two young men in the easily recognisable military green came to our doors and ushered us into the immigration office. A woman with a stone face behind the desk gave us two small immigration cards to complete, one to return now, and the other on exit of Russia. Mac and I were then dealt with individually. Everything was checked and entered into the computer system. Personal and passport details as well as vehicle details.
Mac was ushered through the gate once his checks had been completed. I stood still, Keeping Mac in sight and answered the questions I was asked.
I proceeded through the gate into a room, decorated with an x-ray machine – for humans and luggage, as well as a desk, two chairs and access to offices in the corner of the room. Mac had already become acquainted with another immigration official by the time I arrived on his side of the gate. After being presented with a document to complete, Mac gestured towards a washroom he had spotted, one has to take the opportunity when a toilet is available, since ours is frozen… The official responded with a stern reminder that he was in fact, in control here – “No, you sit, first immigration.” So, Mac sat down and began filling out the required documentation before I joined, while squeezing ones buttocks together rather firmly…
Two identical documents needed to be completed for each of the vehicles we were temporarily importing. The Mog, and the Yamaha ATV in the back. The entire process didn’t actually take as long as we thought it could have. We were there for a total of 2.5 hours. Although, we would have been able to reduce that by an hour had we not have needed to fill out the same document five times. The tiniest error and the documents were discarded and we were told to complete another. Five times I completed one document! Please don’t ask me how I managed to get it wrong so many times, I’m not sure either.
By the time we had finished the immigration process, Mac managed to get a smile out of the immigration official. Maybe they are friendly. I began to relax. We were taken outside, back to the vehicle for inspection. Two officials followed Mac around the vehicle and much to our surprise, looked only briefly in the hatches and cabin. I think his main interest was the Lonely Planet books on the shelf detailing the other countries included on this trip.
We waved and smiled, as did they, watching us as we officially rolled through the gates into Russia. We have officially crossed into the country that still remains the greatest threat to the western world. It did make me feel slightly vulnerable. So it should.
We drove through the forest, on the same stretch of road that goes from Ivalo, right into Murmansk. I’ll never forget that road. Never.
We parked before dark, (because Mac’s eyes were getting heavy) in a flat parking area on the side of the road. We hopped into the cabin excited for warmth and relaxation after a long day on the road. We weren’t quite greeted with that…
Just add it to the list of problems.