Summary of Four Weeks in Russia Week 26 14th October 2011
Russia has been twenty nine days to cover 5,600 km across the world's largest country at an average of 194 km per day. The difference between that and a more leisurely 130 km/day in China may not seem much but is sufficient to change the focus from exploring the country and culture to fighting travel fatigue.

Roads varied from wonderfully smooth to hopelessly broken and potholed. We were mostly traveling at or below heavy truck speed - good as we rarely had to overtake or be overtaken by trucks. Our pet hate became concrete roads that had been resurfaced with asphalt - the lumpy joins were just at the wrong distance apart, impossible to find a comfortable speed.

Our reason for choosing the most westerly border crossing from Mongolia to Russia was initially to reduce the distance. Knowing that we would miss Lake Baikal. The logistics of traveling east to west through "the Stans" defeated our planning during the flood. Hence, what seems like a mad dash across the south of Russia.

Our journey was initially through the rather stunning Altai region, across the steppes to the Urals, more steppes to the Volga, then along the Don to the Ukraine border.

We've seen the transition from the nomadic herds of Mongolia to the cultivation of the Russian steppes. Though even next to the Volga we were visited by a herd of goats being managed in a remarkably similar way to the nomad herds of Mongolia.

The lack of fences of Mongolia has continued, though the areas of forest have steadily decreased as we moved further westwards. Perhaps related to increasing population density. At the western border with Ukraine the trees are increasingly more like straight lines forming wind breaks between large fields.

It was obviously Autumn when we arrived in the Altai, with light snow falls on the mountain tops. But its less obviously Autumn as we approach the Black Sea. Its as if the cold of Winter approaches from the East as well as with the sun departing from the North.

As the climate apparently changed so did the trees. We started with the higher altitude evergreen larches (we think) of Mongolia and descended to predominantly birch and pines. Further west we began to encounter sycamore and oak. The ground cover also changed progressively. Particularly as we neared the swampy areas around the Volga and Don deltas. And there was also the microclimate of the Samara Bend.

A common thread throughout was the mushroom collectors who seemed to be everywhere in the woods.

Also changing was harvest time. It looked later further west. And in the last days around the Sea of Azov we saw what we assume to be winter wheat being sown.

We had a hint of changing river flow as we followed the Chuya, Katun and Ob rivers. Changing from contained fast flowing mountain rivers to wide slow shallow rivers of the steppes, on their way to the Arctic.

We've been rewarded with the changing browns, oranges and reds of Autumn, highlighted by the light of the low lingering sun. An always changing panorama that held our interest.

Our contact with Russians has been limited and brief. None of the curiosity of Asia and an obvious greater frustration at our language barrier. Plus we were camping in the woods, rarely eating out, avoiding cities, and rarely visiting tourist attractions. Nevertheless, when we needed it help was provided in a matter of fact sort of way.

To confound things we were brought up during the cold war era and read too many spy novels. There was an obvious mental challenge in discarding the lingering effects of anti-soviet propaganda and the urge to see what would happen when a barrier was crashed through. One thing is certain, for us it wasn't the least like anything that ever came out of Hollywood. Apart, that is, from the Illya Kuryatchin character at our border entry!

We camped in the woods throughout. Mostly hidden, never disturbed. There was ample evidence that others had camped where we were. In the last couple of days before the border the lack of woods began to make this style of camping more difficult. On the last night we opted to camp beside a cafe.

Internet was a bit hit and miss. Initially, at Gorno we had very fast 3G. We then had a long run of very slow Edge connections. After the Urals it was back to 3G some of the time. By coincidence we had 3G while fixing the effects of a virus on my netbook and webserver. Unfortunately this combination all conspired to limit our research time. We feel extremely uninformed about the country we've just spent a month in.

In the final couple of days we found time to visit a former Cossack capital and an excavation of a first century Greek settlement. Just a small, enticing, taste of that potentially fascinating boundary between Europe and Asia and the histories of several more empires.

Perhaps a multi-entry business visa next time if that is possible!

We've enjoyed what little we've seen of Russia. We are crossing into Ukraine feeling very tired and worn out. Hopefully to find a rest by the Black Sea.

Sea of Azov and SE Crimea, Ukraine Week 27 14th - 18th October 2011

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