Southern Steppes of Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Flag of Russia  , Samara,
Thursday, May 10, 2007

From Samara our planned route takes us south through open farm country and grassy plains that look similar to the American High Plains.  We left Samara arounf mid day to drive towards Kazakhstan and enjoy our first night of camping close enough to the border to allow for a morning crossing on May 11th.

Perhaps this would be a good point to say a bit more about the cast of characters since I am on an 11 week group trip from Saint Petersburg to Beijing.  Up until this point in Russia we've been staying in hotels and mostly traveling between cities where I often like to venture out on my own to experience the places individually.  From this point forward, though, I expect this trip to be ever more of a group adventure with lots of truck time, camping, and unusual experiences in some of the most remote places on earth.

Our truck's name is Tonka, after the toy trucks all little boys play with.  There are two drivers, Charlie (the trip leader), and Ben.  Charlie is one of Dragoman's most experienced drivers and also the mastermind behind the company trying out and organizing a Russia-Mongolia trip route.  Ben's driven for Dragoman for many years but took some time off last year to make some real money driving trucks in Iraq.  We also have a Russian interpreter named Sasha who will be with us until we cross the border into Mongolia in another four weeks.

There was a full load 22 passengers, but we lost one when Peter went home to Florida after a flareup of a chronic back condition.  His wife, Betsy, is continuing on with the tour.  The group ranges in age from about to turn 18 to just turned 67, and the breakdown by nationaity (including the drivers) is 9 British, 6 Americans, 3 Australians, 2 New Zealanders, 1 Canadian, 1 Irish, 1 Swiss, and 1 Italian.  We had been joking for a while that that the reason the unemployment rate is so low nowadays in most western countries must be that all the unemployed people must be on overland truck trips since not a single one of us passengers has a job to which he or she intends to return.

Around mid-afternoon we began to search for our first campground.  Ben and Charlie turned the truck off the road and drove directly into a bog.  Why they decided the other side of a mudhole would be the perfect place to pitch our tents is something I can only specualte about, but Tonka predictibly became very stuck despite having 4-wheel drive.  Charlie and Ben spent the next three hours wallowing in the mud, doing a mix of digging with shovels and strategically placing metal sand mats under the wheels to get us out.  They were apparently too embarrassed by the self-inflicted nature of this predicament to ask the rest of us to help out in the mudhole, as drivers usually do to let passengers pretend they're being useful when trucks sink into muddy roads.  Every 20 minutes or so they'd try moving Tonka again and each time make a few feet of progress, eventually getting the truck out of the water hole but only further into super-saturated soil that it sank deeply into.

There seems to be something on the Y-Chromosome that leads most men to believe they are experts on things about which they know absolutely nothing during times of crisis and this was one of those times.  While the girls sat and read or chatted on the truck, the most of the guys went into action outside the truck advising Charlie and Ben on what we needed to do to get out of the mud with some of the most cockamamie suggestions I've ever heard.  I personally thought it was a good time to have a beer, make jokes, and take some photos.

After about an hour, Charlie piggybacked Sasha across the bog to find help along the road, by either flagging down a truck to stop and pull Tonka out of the mud or to hitchhike to a nearby cooperative farm to hire a tractor to do the job.  After an hour of Sasha standing along the quite heavily-trafficked road, it was clear this strategy wasn't working.  So, Claire, Betsy, and Carla decided to go out to the road as well, figuring three damsels in distress were more likely to grab the attention of the truck drivers who could possibly help us out than just another drunk guy standing beside the road smoking.  

This plan worked; after another hour or so a truck stopped.  The vehicle was an passenger transport truck with perhaps 12 seats of a type we've seen frequently, used by the oil and other resource industries to transport workers to remote sites and designed with extra large wheels to tackle even the most inhospitable environments.  These were electrical workers who (except for the driver) were all drunk off their asses and thought helping out a group of foreigners with some pretty girls to be great fun.  The bog buggy easily maneuvered in; the drivers attached a rope between the two trucks; and Tonka escaped from the mud with the help of a winch and 12 excited electrical workers pushing from behind.  We expected this would cost us a lot of money, but the boys seemed happy with the fun of it all and our gift of a case of beer.  The PAX lent a hand pulling the sand mats out of the mud, cleaning them off a bit, and loading them back onto the truck. 

But how did I get so dirty?  I mean, I was just the photographer.  This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen until we got to Mongolia, but now I finally feel like I'm on a real Dragoman trip.

We quickly found a campsite on unplowed fields of a large cooperative farm on land dry enough for Tonka not to sink through but still muddy enough for each of our boots to become caked with about 8 pounds of clay and straw within two minutes of jumping out of the truck.  The howling winds of the early evening died down as we were setting up camp and eating dinner, but the mid-May night was still frigid enough that my bottle of diet coke had turned slushy in my tent by morning.
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