We approached Russia timidly. This would be the 18th country on our pilgrimage and only the second to last to our destination. We were border warriors at this point. But Russia – all summer we’d been hearing about tensions between our kind and their kind at an all-time post-Cold War high. Each Internet check-in we’d hear about increased sanctions and feel increased tinges of hesitation. We’d been through 17 countries and had a lifetime of footage on our hard drives, and expensive camera equipment. Would they think we were some silly, under-baked US attempt at espionage? Would they confiscate our gear? Throw us in an outdated KGB bunker?
To our surprise, the Russian border was the easiest and friendliest of our trip.
Upon exiting Kazakhstan, we struck up conversation with an outgoing 12-year-old, eager to exercise his English, and his grandfather. The Kazakh boy and his younger brother were going to spend the weekend with their Russian grandparents just past the border. When we got to the Russian entry line, our 12-year-old escort, Karim, dragged Brian past the line of 40+ cars to the main guard at the front gate, screaming Russian that sounded quite like “3 Americans! I have 3 Americans here!” Was this kid ratting us out? The guard handed over 3 blank customs forms, translated to English, for us to fill out. This was our first indication that maybe our Russian angst was unfounded. Once through a quick, easy border process (Russia is the most fully developed country we’d been through in a long time, remember!), Karim presented us with a few of his grandfather’s loose coins as a token from Kazakhstan. We gave him his first ever US dollar.
We raced into the grey skies of Russia, finally blasting a song we’d had ready to go for weeks now – “Back in the USSR” boomed from the Auto Goulet speakers out into the open Russian air.
We had only driven a few minutes when a hand from a car up ahead waved out to us. We quickly recognized it as Karim and his family. Although we had wanted to get some miles under us before sunset, we stopped by their home for hot tea and snacks. Karim showed us around the place and gifted us with various small knickknacks he found around his grandparents’ house (a green marble, a miniature hourglass), while his grandmother sliced up tomatoes and cucumbers plucked from the garden outside. While Karim translated, his quiet grandfather told us about his time in the Russian army (something about having 4 stars and fighting the Japanese). And although we declined their offer to stay the night, Karim loaded us with gifts from the family’s luscious backyard garden before heading out. Over the next few nights, we’d find uses for fresh tomatoes, cucumber, dill, and peas thanks to the exceptional kindness of our talented young friend, Karim, and his family, another Rally reminder that sometimes the best hospitality can be found where you least expect it.
We raced onward towards the city of Barnaul, our northernmost Russian pivot point towards Mongolia at the foothills of the Altai Mountains. Driving deep into the night, the Russian roads were smooth but our windshield hazy – Eric replaced the lyrics to many of our favorite songs with variations of “I can’t see out the windshield!” We parked by a gas station at about 3am and slept miserably in the frozen, crowded car after a marathon drive. Any layers of clothing in the car, including sleeping bags, were put to use.
Our journey continued to the southeast early the next morning, as we excitedly headed for Mongolia. The skies were grey and the air stiff and cold – but just as we narrated to the camera that “Russia is always a grey and dark place,” the wintry skies suddenly melted to blue and we became surrounded by luscious green foliage. We had reached the gorgeous Altai Mountains.
We swerved through rolling mountain roads past tucked-away mountain towns, lined with quaint mountain cabins of all shapes and colors. Townspeople lined the streets selling apples from baskets and small bridges straddled streams in the valleys. Although our passage through Russia was brief, it turns out this quiet corner of the country, worlds away from the news-catching Ukrainian violence in the west, offered a serene, endless landscape seemingly untouched by politics or other modern tensions. At dusk, we found a grassy perch of land by the bend of a flowing river and set up camp for the evening, left to enjoy the peaceful landscape to ourselves.
Before bed, we spoke into the camera about our excitement, hopes, and fears before reaching the promised land, Mongolia.
Next stop: Mongolia! Read our next chapter here.