We're on the M10, the only major thoroughfare between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Night is slowly descending. We've decided to cover another hundred kilometers or so before stopping to find our first Russian free-camp. We want to make our drive to Moscow tomorrow a short one, as we've been warned the traffic can be horrendous.
As we cruise past lakes and fields and crumbling villages, one phrase keeps flitting through my mind, over and over again: It feels like we're in the Wild West! Even though I know we should, I am feeling lazy, and don't want to stop to take pictures of the scenery we're passing.
Rather than driving on, Tyler gently reminds me, "There is only now. There may be houses like this all over Russia, but then again there may not be. And, even if they are everywhere, we'll never see these ones like this again." He is right, of course.
During a break in the traffic, Tyler flips a U-turn and pulls over, kicking up gravel on the side of the road. I unbuckle and get out of the car, walking around in the fading light to capture our first houses in Russia.
The homes feel abandoned, and yet there are tell-tale signs of habitation: delicate lace curtains hung in the windows, pretty gardens growing black-eyed susans and other summer flowers, and a dog or two tied up outside by a dilapidated shed.
Every single one of them is very old, but beautifully ornate. It is obvious that at one time, these were grand, colorful homes in a thriving community. Now, they posses a different beauty, and certain appeal in their faded grandeur.
As I walk around taking pictures, tromping through the roadside ditch full of weeds, I wonder if anyone is home. Is there is an old woman inside one of these structures, peeking out the window at a strange girl with a camera?
Grass and vines and bushes grow up around the wooden buildings, and it feels like they are being consumed by their surroundings, the flora and fauna slowly digesting its prey like a snake.
As well, most of the homes are slightly off kilter, tilted slightly to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa. Tyler says it looks as if a giant has gently squashed all of them, just a little.
Once I feel as though I've done the wooden houses justice, I head back to the car and Tyler pulls back onto the highway. It is officially dark now, and the road takes on an entirely different atmosphere. Legions of unseen crickets chirp in unison; the wildlife so loud that it practically drowns out the sounds of the road.
Various vehicles, seemingly on the verge of collapse chug along, choking out a thick, black smog from their exhaust pipes. A shoeless, shirtless man drunkenly stumbles along, sauntering in and out of the shoulder, narrowly escaping death with every step. There are strange folk about on this highway of ours.
Our St. Petersburg couch surfing host, Aleksandr, referred to towns in Russia as "population centers." At the time, we thought that was a strange way of describing cities, but as we drive along the very direct, almost perfectly straight highway, we start to understand why he phrased it the way he did.
It feels like we are on a well-traversed route, not a road. I imagine this to be a path that people have taken for years and years and years, transporting goods and supplies from one population center to the next. It feels epic, like being a part of the Silk Road, or a caravan of camels traversing the Sahara. We are just one of a few cars among hundreds of semi trucks and the occasional dark green ex-military vehicle.
Just a week or two ago, we had 24 hour sunlight, but now the night has returned in full force. In the darkness, the roadsides comes alive. We begin to see huts lining the shoulder, lit by tiny flames, beacons against the inky blue skies. Semi after semi truck is haphazardly parked along the highway. People are mingling at the stands, sipping steaming beverages. Eager to experience this congregation, we pull off and find a parking spot amongst the trucks.
Villagers who cater specifically to this type of traveler are selling hot pastries and cups of tea and coffee to provide sustenance for what is perhaps a long journey ahead. Steam emanates from silver samovars in white billows, and the air is filled with smoke from their fires. Orange headlights and taillights cut through the fog, and the atmosphere is positively surreal. It is becoming very apparent—we're not in Kansas anymore!
Tyler is excited, feeling that the world around us has become 'sinister' and 'like a zombie movie' but not in a bad way. I don't think it feels sinister, just different and exciting, and it reminds me a little of Romania. And then it occurs to us—we're in between the two capitols of Russia. What is it going to feel like in Siberia!?
I get out of the car and approach a friendly-looking woman. With a bit of confused conversation, I try to order a tea, but she hands me a fried, meat-filled pastry instead. Woops. That'll work, too! I give the woman thirty rubles, thank her, and head back to our LRC.
We pull back onto the road, feeling happy and excited like we're on a proper adventure again. We had hoped things would feel somehow "different" in Russia. We're getting our wish and then some!
In what seems like moments, we've completed the final hundred kilometer stretch we set out to. It is time to find a safe place to sleep. No matter how many times we free-camp, I am generally nervous about doing so the first time in a new country. After the first time, it is easy. Just minutes after starting our search, Tyler spots a bumpy dirt track leading off the highway.
We pull off to investigate, and I deem the small ditch before the road to be passable. Tyler slowly dips our tiny car down and up the dirt, onto the path leading to the woods. The road dead-ends amid trees and some kind of gas pipe surrounded by a fence. We inspect the area and deem it suitable. I am still a little nervous about our first night of stealth camping in Russia. What if some government officials come to inspect their pipe!? Tyler is, as usual, unconcerned, and sets up the entire camp for me.
Now, we're settled, at home in our tent once more. We're restless, but we finally fall asleep to the sounds of distant traffic and wildlife all around us: our first night in the wilds of Russia!