On to Russia through thickly wooded countryside. The frontier is at Brest Litovsk. Just as we approached our usual frontier problems began. The mini bus developed it’s usual resistance and refused to budge. We crossed the Polish border by girl power, then with the engine kept running we approached the fierce looking Russian frontier guards. We prayed that the engine would not stop. In Russia it is illegal to drive a vehicle that is not in good running order. Fortunately our luck held till we came to a compulsory stop at the customs house.
A dour unsmiling girl came up to us and said ‘I am Anna, your guide and interpreter in Russia’ Our faces visibly clouded as the last thing we wanted was a guide, we wanted to be free (within the given limits) to go where we wanted, when we wanted and to be able to talk freely to anyone that we met. It had been officially announced by the Russian Tourist Board that this would be the first year when tourists would not have to have a guide with them all the time. Betty had an hour long tussle with the icy officials. Phone calls were made to Moscow but we remained adamant. Their weak moment came when they said ‘Well of course we can’t force you to take her’. We had pointed out that there was also no room for her in the bus. That was enough and we were finally allowed to go off on our own. They forecast all kinds of gloomy things that would happen to us if we didn’t have a guide…you will get lost…you will never find the camp sites…you won’t understand our regulations and so on. Eventually we prepared to leave…and the engine wouldn’t start! A group of Russian interpreters had gathered on the steps as the girls prepared to push. Anna was heard to say ‘Well I wouldn’t want to go in that thing!’ We were lucky that they didn’t make us stop again.
The road to Moscow is quite good and very straight and flat of course. We didn’t encounter a hill between Stevenage and Leningrad. On either side of the road vast expanses of land stretched away to the horizon. The sky appeared to be enormous like a Dutch landscape painting. First there were forests of short (man sized) birch trees and small scrubby bushes. Next agricultural land with no trees or hedges. There was an occasional peat bog being worked for fuel. The crops were very varied ranging from wheat, to root vegetables, to flax etc. Frequently we would drive up to what looked like a huge yellow mirage on the road ahead and when we reached it we would find that it was grain spread across the road to dry. We sometimes drove alongside it for miles. There was hardly any traffic. The few houses that we could see were fascinating, like log cabins with a tremendous variety of carved wooden window frames. occasionally there would be a painted house I absolutely loved them.
Water seemed to be drawn from primitive shaduf type wells and carried by the women in buckets hanging on yokes across their shoulders. Each little house had a large piece of ground around it in which the people grow their own flowers and vegetables. There is a great tradition of bottling and pickling for the winter.
It isn’t like Europe where you drive through villages. I assumed there were some along the dirt tracks that appeared now and then leading off at right angles to the road. I suppose there were collective farms somewhere but we didn’t see them. I kept thinking about Napoleons army marching across there and later the Germans rapid advance and then degrading retreat. Miles and miles of open country without shelter.
We picked up a babushka and her granddaughter, about eight years old, she was waiting at the side of the road and signalled for us to stop. Russian people are used to getting lifts along the road. We didn’t see any buses. They were flabbergasted to realise that it was a bus full of English females all, (with the exception of me) able to speak some Russian,. and one fluent Russian speaker, Betty. She looked around in delight and said ‘Harosha’ (beautiful) She told us that her son was a student in Leningrad and she was looking for a wife for him. She chose one of the girls who was attractive but rosy cheeked and sturdy and said she would like her to meet her son in Leningrad! We had taken lots of gifts for people and we gave them a large decorated tin of biscuits, she was absolutely delighted as the two of them got off the bus further along the road. There was no sign of a village or a house anywhere, they just trudged off across the fields. We teased Penny unmercifully about her possible forthcoming marriage!
Later we had to stop at a very rare petrol station, it was extremely important to know where they were on the map as they were over a hundred miles apart. Their octane is much lower than ours so we had to make sure that we went to the pump with the highest octane, we did have to carry petrol in a jerry can too. Once we couldn’t get to the next station and had to use the can, it was only then that I realised that we hadn’t brought a funnel, I had to improvise one from cardboard and self adhesive plastic.
The petrol stations were wonderful for meeting ordinary Russians, which is what we wanted to do. They were totally intrigued and came up to talk and wanted to know about England. Our town council had given us stacks of glossy brochures about Stevenage and we gave them out to one and all, they assured us that they would be treasured!
Stopping for petrol, (poor picture) from old colour slide.
Terespol ladies selling vegetables. The old men (no picture) were sitting around with big sunflowers in their hands. They were eating the seeds!
Lots of little children were fascinated by our mini bus. Wherever we went children came crowding round.
It was dusk when we reached our first camping site in Smolensk. The camping field was on the banks of a slow flowing small river. Mist was rising from the water and it all looked a bit dank. We could see frogs hopping about on the grass. There were big white bell tents with wooden floors and bunk beds. We settled into one when there was a cry from another tent, I went to see what was happening. Penny was shouting there’s a really big frog in here I can hear it. Indeed there was a frog like noise coming from the side of the tent. In the end it turned out to be someone blowing up a lilo just outside! There was a camp kitchen with pots and pans where you can cook your own food. I had acted as the quarter master and we had brought our own food for Russia. I cooked corned beef hash, the potato was Smash and we also had baked beans followed by tinned pears and custard. Then tea or coffee with powdered milk. Not hugely exciting but MUCH better than Russian food. Their food shops were largely empty, when some desired food came in there were massive queues, you couldn’t find fresh fruit and vegetables just a few very measly apples. Having said that a lot of Russians (not all) had little dacha’s. Small houses or huts on a little piece of land, a bit like our allotments but bigger…it was here that they could grow vegetables and fruit. Many of them spent the weekends there.