Moscow is where we left the West truly behind and turned our clocks one hour towards India. From Munich to Minsk, we had been three-and-a-half hours behind India, and now, in Moscow, we were two-and-a-half hours behind IST. But, by the time we would stay overnight at Ulan-Ude, our last night halt in Russia, we would be two-and-a-half hours ahead of IST. That means our 5,700-km drive across Russia from Moscow to Ulan-Ude would also take us six hours ahead in time. And, in the two weeks or so that we would take to drive that distance, I pleasantly and peacefully learnt what Napoleon and Hitler did the hard way – how incredibly vast Russia is.
Moscow was only our gateway into Russia – the portico of the country, so to speak.
When the winds of change swept across Eastern Europe in the early ’90s, blowing away the Iron Curtain and causing the collapse of communism, Moscow re-invented itself. It went from being the cold and grey centre of the communist world to being the hot new-look capital of the Russian Federation. As a result, in Moscow, as we had seen, Big Macs, flashy Ferraris, Western brands and Western music that still pulsed inside my skull were everywhere. Where people once queued for bread, young girls now queue for a make-up demonstration offered by an outlet of a global cosmetic giant. In Moscow, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that Russia was very keen to put its communist past well and truly behind.
But driving east, I realised that communism and its most revered hero haven’t faded very much from local memory.
Take Nizhny Novgorod, for instance, which was our next halt. It is just 417 km east of Moscow, and yet looks almost a decade behind.
Here, along with Russian Orthodox churches, stands a sombre, granite statue of Lenin. This in itself is not odd, as Lenin is still considered a hero who saved the country from the oppression and extravagances of the Tsars. What is unusual is that fresh flowers are placed at its feet every day. It shows that old Vladimir is still loved and respected.
On the other hand, there are no statues of Stalin, nor is he spoken about, thanks to his brutal brand of politics. In the same way that he had ordered the murder of Polish POWs to eliminate the probability of them causing trouble in the future, he did away with thousands of citizens of the USSR by either having them killed or sentenced to gulags – concentration camps in the freezing reaches of Siberia.
We arrived late in the evening in this very pretty city on the confluence of the Volga and the Oka rivers, and were treated to a fabulous sunset, the first of many sunrises and sunsets that we would be privileged to, on our run across the Trans-Siberian highway across Russia to Mongolia.
Nizhny’s immense clifftop kremlin is where Count Dmitry Pozharsky and the merchant Kuzma Minin rallied a popular army to beat back the Polish intervention of 1612. The famous statue in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is of these two men. In the 19th century, it was said that “St Petersburg is Russia’s head; Moscow its heart; and Nizhny Novgorod its wallet”.
During the days of the USSR, Nizhny was called Gorky, after the writer Maxim Gorky, who was born here in 1868, and it was out of bounds for foreigners. It was also chosen as a place of exile for nonconforming physicist Andrei Sakharov.
And yes, the “Gorky Park” mentioned in the song Winds of Change by the Scorpions, is a park in Moscow also named after Maxim Gorky.
Nizhny is also where all the Russian heavy industry and armament factories were moved to from Moscow, when the danger of the German army capturing Moscow became very real.
I would have liked to spend two days here walking about and exploring this lovely city but our trip wasn’t exactly a sightseeing one. The main aim of this cross-continental drive was to get the cars home. And to prove that, even with the direct route from India to Europe (through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey) not being an option for Indian passport holders and cars registered in India, there was an overland route to India without the necessity of putting your car on a boat or shipping it to some port.
You can actually drive from anywhere in mainland Europe to anywhere in mainland India.
Which is why we were constantly on the go, like the pathfinders of an invading army. We would stop at night at pre-planned stopovers, as driving through the night wasn’t really great for safety nor did it a afford great photo opportunities. We’d usually stop an hour or two after sunrise and start an hour before sunrise. This gave us great dawn and dusk pictures.
But there was an issue with driving east in Russia. Time kept on sneaking ahead of us. For example, if we drove from 4.00 am to 8.00 pm by our wristwatches, simple maths would tell us that we’d driven sixteen hours. But the clocks on the walls of the hotels we were checking into would show either 9.00 pm or 10.00 pm because we’d crossed a time zone or two on our drive that day. This meant that, all through our blitz east through Russia, the hours we had to sleep kept getting shorter.
On most days, we’d put in a 700 or 800 km drive. And, even though most of the highways were two lanes and just 25 feet wide, we could hold average speeds of 80 kph, thanks to the paucity of population and the fact that every component of the traffic moved at a pace near about the speed limit.
And then, of course, there was the road discipline and courtesy. The fact that I used my horn just twice over 5,400 km says a lot.
Even though we were blitzing through Russia, the prettiness of this land (our route took us east through southern Siberia) kept coming at me through the windscreen, and every so often, I would pull up to take pictures.
Kazan was one such place. A very vibrant city, colourful Kazan is the ancient and present capital of Tatarstan. Its historic kremlin is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the only kremlin in the world with a mosque inside it – the Qolşärif Mosque. Named after the imam who died here with his students while protecting Kazan from the onslaught of Ivan the Terrible’s forces in 1552, it is the biggest mosque in Europe outside Istanbul. Within the kremlin is also the five-domed Annunciation Cathedral. Outside the kremlin are trendy cafés and the grand Palace of Farmers, with the symbolic tree in the doorway. But the most interesting characteristic of Kazan is the fact that, being a cosmopolitan Russian city, you see a multitude of facial features because people from different parts of the country live there. And that once again rams home the fact that Russia is just so vast. e colour of the skin, the slant of the eyes, the colour of the hair, high cheekbones, prominent jawlines, dressed in robes or dressed in a hijab...because of its size, Russia is a mix of so many peoples, cultures, dialects and languages, that in a city like Kazan, just walking around and people-watching can be fascinating.
I grew up when the Cold War was on full heat and Western propaganda portrayed Russia as a grey and dreary place. But my drive across this country rubbed away at that image every day. Like an artist painstakingly working at restoring the vividness of a painted masterpiece covered by years of grime and neglect, Russia revealed herself to me slowly in all her splendour. As we drove east into Siberia, going ever so slightly north, the leaves had already started to turn colour with the onset of autumn. The result was a multi-hued landscape that ran on as far as the eye could see, in all directions.
Excerpted with permission from The Long Drive Home, Rishad Saam Mehta, Tranquebar.