Monday, 19 August 2013

Driving to Suzdal

Last weekend we visited Suzdal, a charming historic town about 220 kilometres east of Moscow. I’ll write about it next time. In this post I am going to tell you something about the journey from Moscow to Suzdal. 

We hired a car – my first experience of driving on Russian roads. I’ll preface this by saying that I am a very experienced driver. I have driven for weeks at a time in places like Italy, Greece, Morocco, Portugal, Namibia, the USA and Egypt. I’ve crossed some of the world’s great cities – Rome, Paris, Cairo without so much as getting a scratch on a car. During the past 10 years in outback Australia during the course of my work with national parks I estimate I covered about 250,000 kilometres driving in various terrains and conditions. I was also required to handle four wheel drive vehicles loaded with a fire unit full of water at bush fires in very rough terrain, for which I received proper training. 

So I think I know something about how to drive a motor vehicle.

I can tell you that most of the Russians I saw on the road do not. They were without doubt the most aggressively dangerous and negligent drivers I have ever seen – and that’s saying something, given the places in which I have driven. 

Most of the journey is along the M7. I don’t know what the M stands for but it sure can’t be motorway. It is a dual carriageway, though so beset with traffic lights in places that the vehicles crawl along.  

Bridge repairs and other occasional roadworks seem to be conducted in such a manner as to cause maximum inconvenience to motorists. On two occasions we were stuck in 3 or 4 kilometre long traffic jams as well as numerous smaller ones which could have been avoided by some reconfiguring of the road work site. 

Cars overtaking on the shoulder being overtaken by cars overtaking on the shoulder's shoulder.

As soon as they encounter a traffic jam, many Russians drive along the ragged road shoulder, some even drive on the dirt to overtake people driving along the shoulder, trying to turn 2 lanes into 4. On two occasions I saw cars that had collided with trucks where they had tried to get back in to the flow of traffic from the shoulder. 

The inevitable result of trying to overtake on the shoulder - a collision occurred between the red car and the truck as the car tried to get back on to the road. This causes more chaos as these vehicles cannot be moved until the police arrive, which will take ages in this traffic.
I had a near miss myself when trying to change lanes in slow traffic - a guy behind, who had just made exactly the same lane change himself, was aggressively refusing to let me in – I was shocked to see this lunatic threatening to ram our vehicle if I didn’t return to my lane. 

What about the traffic police you ask? The only thing I observed them doing  was checking drivers’ papers now and then on the side of the road. Otherwise they seemed blind to the mayhem. In fact, this random paper checking caused another 2  kilometre long traffic jam as they had managed to partially block a lane. Once again drivers started racing along the shoulder. Not only were the traffic police ignoring this hazardous behaviour, it was the traffic jam they had created that was causing it! 

For the final 25 kilometres from Vladimir to Suzdal the dual carriageway is replaced by a 2 lane road. Ridiculously dangerous overtaking on this stretch was so common as to be normal. 

In all, we saw about 12 accidents (more than I see in a year in Australia). The 220 kilometre ‘motorway’ trip took 6.5 hours, the return journey, 5. 

It was a nightmare. 

On a lighter note, a town along the way seemed specialise in the sale of large fluffy toys. There were about a dozen of these roadside stalls over about a kilometre. Now I know where to go if I need a giant fluffy rabbit.

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