Our escort driver we have always referred to as the’ Silver Fox’ was waiting as promised, handgun on show, at 04:15. It was a very cold foggy morning and the trip to the trucks took about 5 minutes. Bryan was up and ready, with a coffee waiting for me. It was a cool -5c and minutes after we started off the snow started coming down. As we cleared the reasonably quiet Moscow roads it came down heavier and soon the roads were covered in a thick layer, which smoothed out many of the potholes! The progress was slow going purely because we were being escorted. At one point Richard overtook the escort car as he was going too slow for our liking, quite often he stayed behind slower moving trucks with clear opportunity to overtake, after we overtook him he got the message! The snow was really heavy now, and the Russians do not use salt on the roads, just sand, which quickly covers the truck in a thick film, making the windscreen difficult to see out of. The temperature had now plummeted to double figures. It was pitch black until 09:30, and when the sun finally rose it was just a dull, grey light. Gradually the snow eased off and the temperature rose slightly, but the progress was no quicker with so many slow-moving trucks and buses on the road. The road surface was awful now with huge potholes and sections of tarmac missing.
A big long section of new road was really smooth and gave us a respite for a while but soon we came across a stretch that had been newly laid on a recent trip I did, and that had been all broken up again. The road repairers in Russia must have a job for life, similar to the painters on the Forth Road Bridge! Due to previous experience we knew where we had to turn north at a turning, which was good as the signs were very small and really didn’t reflect the importance of the junction. Just after we turned we flashed the escort to indicate we needed to stop, which he didn’t see and carried on. By the time we had changed digi cards over he had doubled back to us. The gauge on the dashboard now told us it was a dizzy -0.5c, time to take our jumpers off! Bryan was to do the last 160km to the border, time for me to relax, if you can call being bounced around the cab relaxing, I even spilt my coffee at one point! A few brave hookers still braved the weather, standing at the side of the road in overcoats and hats, and mini skirts! At a Statoil garage is the next major intersection to head towards Latvia, again unsigned. The road towards the border is laughably a toll road, but you don’t get a decent surface for your money, the first section terrible. You have to pay the toll at the end when you cross the border, halfway across it you have to slow to walking pace to bounce across a raised railway track, with no barriers to warn of approaching trains. I would call it a level crossing, but it is certainly not level! Yet more hookers line this road waiting in laybys. Shacks and smallholdings that look like they were picked from a shanty town line the road. Halfway down we were flashed by oncoming vehicles about an ANC check, and shortly after we spot a policeman hiding in the bushes. Just before the border crossing they have built a hotel and truck park and we pulled into there. We said goodbye to the ‘Silver Fox’ and Kevin and I went and checked into the hotel. Rich joined us for a beer or two and a meal, which was very nice, and very cheap. I then headed for some sleep, which was easier said than done due to the paper-thin walls and the noisy blokes in the room next to me. At least we had a lie in the next day, we weren’t going to meet the fixer until 09:30 and tackle the border.
The next morning it was only just getting light when we returned to the trucks, and there was fresh snow on the ground, which had also cleaned a bit of the dirt off the trucks. We cleaned our front number plates (the customs officials get a little angry if they can’t read them!) and set off the few yards to the border with Latvia at 09:30. We paid our road toll at the first barrier, and then waited, and waited. It became daylight and we watched the Latvian cars coming into the adjacent petrol station to fill with cheap Russian fuel.
It takes hours to transit the border in both directions so it has to be very cheap in order to go through that hassle. We also watch a man fill a Calor Gas bottle from a pump next to the fuel islands, and the amount of gas that was escaping as he was filling it was unreal, health and safety is not really considered here. It took 2 hours to reach the passport control booth, where we had them stamped and our little visa tickets taken off of us. It was a relief to get rid of the slips as you have to keep them with you in your passport all the time you are in the country, and if you lose them you cannot get out without a lot of grief. We then sat at the passport booth until 12:30 when we were pulled forward to the weighbridge where we were weighed and had our height checked, and at 13:00 then pulled into the parking area so the fixer could take our ATA carnets off to be processed. I wandered into the dirty, smelly customs building and changed all the Russian money I had left into Euro for the next hotels, the cashier had a face like thunder, obviously full of job satisfaction! On the way back I passed a Latvian in a DAF XF trying to park in a space that you could get two trucks into. He gave up, and pulled out at such an acute angle he smashed the mirrors of the truck next to him. He stopped to see what he had done, and drove round to the back of the parking area quickly thinking no one had seen him. We then settled in for a long wait, we passed the time drinking coffee and Bryan knocked up a great bowl of pasta. We were entertained by a Coal Tit that kept landing on the windscreen wipers looking for dead insects, and then by a Lithuanian Magnum drawbar that pulled in with a set of wheels missing off the trailer. The trailer leaned at a crazy angle and we figured he was trying to get out of Russia to get it repaired.
At 17:15 we were handed our carnet back and told to go, so we drove round to the exit barrier. When Bryan double checked he realised our stamped gate pass hadn’t been handed back to us, so he had to go off in search of the fixer, frustrating after such a long wait. Finally we got out, and drove to the Latvian border. At the first booth our carnet was checked, and our passports, they were handed back and we were told to go to the parking area, and walk back. We did this and the guard then told us we had to go to the X-Ray machine, which we had now driven past to park! So, back to the truck, and queue for the X-Ray, a very smart Norwegian Scania was ahead of us, the driver told us he was empty except for some empty pallets to return with. It took a long time to get X-Rayed, and we then parked up again and walked back to the booth, where we were told to go into the customs building, where they stamped the carnet, checked our passports and said we can go. It was frustrating to be held so long at the EU border, it should have been so much quicker, we finally cleared the border at 19:35, and once in Latvia put our clocks back by 2 hours. We drive past the incoming queue which is about 3km long, and the rain starts again, but thankfully stays as rain not snow, a sign it is warming up? Latvia passes without incident quite quickly, and we stop just inside the Lithuanian border to get road tax. We then head for a garage to swap trailers so Richard has the Sheffield goods on, we didn’t swap previously as the carnets wouldn’t have matched up. After swapping we say goodbye to Rich and Kevin, as we are on different schedules and routes now so don’t expect to meet up again. We roll into Poland late in the evening, and after unsuccessfully trying one T.I.R park with a hotel for room we find a Hessoil T.I.R park with availability.
I pay for my room and walk back to the truck to get my bags, and when I return to the restaurant I am pleasantly surprised to see Kevin sitting there. They too had tried the first place and had ended up here, so we manage to have another beer together. However we only have one, they are only having a 9hr break and are leaving in the morning but we have to have a 24hr break here. I retire to my room which is tiny and right under the garage shop at basement level. My window looks out at feet level at the customers entering the shop, and I don’t sleep too well.
The following morning after Kevin leaves I pass the time photographing some Russian trucks in the parking, and watching films on my laptop. It is relieving to be leaving when our break is over, and we roll out into the fog at 02:30. Yet again we bounce our way through Poland over rough tramlined roads. When we approach Wroclaw I’m driving and getting close to my driving limit, but can’t find anywhere to park. Eventually after we get off the ring road I find a layby, and have done 4:45hrs, and do a printout to write an explanation on. As we near Germany we notice trucks coming the other way with snow on the front, a sign of things to come. The temperature drops as we cross the border near Gorlitz and it’s not long before it’s pouring with snow and the autobahn is covered in a thick layer.
Coming down a steep hill we notice the other side of the road is closed due to an accident, and stuck trucks trying to get up the hill. After the Nuremburg area the snow clears, and at Bad Rappenau we pull into an autohof that has a hotel. There is a secure parking area, a really nice hotel, and a truck stop with a very good restaurant, why can’t we have these in Britain? A bonus being it was free to park. It was a shame we were only stopping for 9hrs, I could have spent a very comfortable 24hr break there!
The next morning bright and early we set off, and turn south towards Basel on the A5. We run into yet more road works where they are extending the 2 lane sections into 3. The no overtaking in the road works rule was being observed today by all except for a French car. He squeezed past us but then got stuck behind a German artic that was not willing to pull over, straddling the two lanes as he had the right to do, the French driver was not happy! We eventually reached the Swiss border, and went into the customs building. The German office processed and stamped our carnet quickly but when we went to the Swiss window we found a man checking estate agents web sites, and he was most annoyed we wanted our paperwork doing! We were still done in half an hour, and after doing our road tax we slipped through the barrier and drove down the road to Audio Rent at Aesch.
They tipped our load, and reloaded us with 10 flight cases for Luton within 20 minutes. Back at the border yet again the parking area was under construction and it was chaos. We found a space and Bryan headed off to get the carnet stamped. I spent the time watching an argument between two drivers. A truck with a 20ft tank container had backed into an Italian rigid that had been driving behind it, the corner of the trailer had punched a great big hole into the rigids body.
When Bryan returned 30 minutes later we went to pull out of the space but the attendants who were trying to park trucks stuck some artics right in front of us, forcing us to blind side reverse out. A few minutes into Germany we peeled off and headed over towards Colmar, and as we drove into France the sun came out and the temperature rose to 5 degrees C, but as we had been used to below freezing it felt like a summers day. Our route took us past a busy Strassbourg, Metz and Reims and we finished in Ashford after an uneventful P&O crossing where I booked into the hotel near the truck stop.
The next day we head off to Luton, early to miss the madness that is the M25. It took us a while to get into Luton due to heavy traffic, but once there we were tipped quickly, and were treated to a coffee by the warehouse staff. From there we cut across into Suffolk and to the yard, where I bid Bryan goodbye. We had covered 10,000kms in the ………………….days, and after initially being apprehensive about the trip I had thoroughly enjoyed it and had seen how easy it was to do the trip without escort cars, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. For now though it was back home for a rest, before going back to the mundane general haulage world until Transam called me again.
By Nick Ireland (That’s him below! – TB)
See all of Nicks Photos for this trip by clicking HERE.