Out of Russia.
The Siberia 2004 group finally left Russia after nearly two months on 2004-09-20 (Happy Birthday Pat.) We are now parked in a secure car park outside the ferry terminal in Tallinn, Estonia. (N59.44528° E24.75201°. Cost about $5.00 per van per day.)
Our last few days in Russia were enlivened by the police, graffiti and palaces.
In Russia we were stopped at police checks about once a day (say forty times during the trip). Most police check points are clearly signed (some up to 15km in advance). Traffic is usually slowed down to 20kph (or occasionally each vehicle must actually come to a halt at a "stop" sign before moving off). One or two policemen (sometimes wearing flak jackets and with automatic weapons) select a suitable vehicle to stop. As far as possible if one of us was stopped the other three would always stop within sight of the police. After pulling over you wait for the policeman who stopped you to approach, this can take up to five minutes. He then salutes you and says something incomprehensible in Russian, you explain that you speak no Russian and that you are English Tourists (this is no time for the intricacies of English, Scottish, Welsh, British, Great Britain, or the UK). Usually the policeman then smiles and asks for "documents". Most times they are satisfied with the international driving licence though sometimes they want "machina passport" (the International Vehicle Registration Document) or the driver's passport. None of these documents are understood, but having stopped you he must do something. Occasionally he wants to look in the back of the vehicles.
These police checks are made more exciting because we all have CB Radios (with big antennas on the roof) and no Russian CB licence (we don't need one?). Most of us have GPSs which are now (2003?) OK for locals to use but some people still think they are prohibited for foreigners. As for a satellite phone, its lucky we don't have one!
At one police check Peter was accused of not wearing his seat belt and escorted to the roadside police building. John (the day leader) tried to go with him but was firmly told to go back to his van. The police explained to Peter that his "crime" carried a 500 Rouble fine (about $17.00USA). Only after considerable discussion, and Peter's insistence that he would only pay the "fine" at a bank, was he eventually released.
During the time Peter was with the police less than 20% of the drivers who passed had seta belts on. We are still not sure if seat belts are compulsory in Russia.
The group had great difficulty in finding somewhere to park in Puskin and ended up in the (private?) car park of what seemed to be an EU-Russia Liaison organisation. Because it was the weekend the car park was empty. The police allowed us to stay when we assured them we would be gone by 07:30 on Monday (thank you). On our first night we heard boisterous (i.e. drunk) female noises outside the vans in the early hours. In the morning we found Graffiti of a truly unusual sort!
Written quite neatly on the tarmac in front of OJ were the words "Great Britain is the best country in the world". So now you know.
The main reason we had come to Puskin was palaces, or more specifically the vast baroque Catherine Palace, built between 1752 and 1756.
Recently (partly) restored to its full gold glitter the palace made an excellent change from the CMM (churches, monasteries and museums) of the Golden Ring. Entrance to the palace, for visitors not in organised tour groups, was only from 16:00 to 17:00 and cost $20.00USA. Easily the highest entry fee we had encountered in Russia, or anywhere else on the trip. We queued in the rain for 45 minutes. But the palace was impressive, especially the Amber Room (with all the walls lined with real amber!).
The border formalities between Russia and Estonia were remarkably easy with no signs of the confusion or bureaucracy of other Russian borders. On the Russian side of the border nearly all the border officials were female, helpful and spoke some English. No sign of police, army or guns! The Estonian side was positively European Union!
Not being stopped by the police in Estonia made a nice change.
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