Another van screeched perilously as it overtook our car, weaving recklessly with inches to spare in front of us, narrowly avoiding a huge juggernaut thundering past in the opposite direction.
We were now the ‘chicken car’ as we had come to call it- an inviting gap stretching in front of our vehicle, placing us in full-on firing line from kamikaze oncoming overtaking traffic, weaving in at the final second to avoid a head on collision.
Abruptly a Russian police car, lights flashing, pulled us over. The stern officer sauntered over, cigarette dangling from his bottom lip and ushered Andy into his nicotine-reeking vehicle. Through a series of broken English he unjustly accused us of speeding. “Where you go,” he snorted. “Mongolia” Andy replied pointing nonsensically in the vague direction 3,000km away. The officers eyes widened disbelievingly; “You Crazy. Mongolia nothing there” and with that diagnosis of lunacy he dismissed us with a harsh, head-shaking “Go… crazy Engleesh”.
Enough of the manic main roads and corrupt constables, we were taking it rural and off-road for some serenity and sanity.
Downgrading from the pot-holed, rough highways was a shock to the system; poor maps and a few sporadic, indecipherable Cyrillic signs made the route challenging. The reward was rural Russia to ourselves with only the occasional herd of wild horses crossing our earthy path. Swathes of pink, clover-filled meadows and fields of amber sunflowers ran parallel, with marmots popping their heads out of burrows in surprise at the rush hour of both a horse drawn cart and us.
Our first camp for the night was idyllic, a high bank overlooking the dark, meandering Irtysh River. Bats swooped a breath width away chasing the rising swarms of mosquitoes so we retreated up the ladder into our cosy rooftent with a panoramic pillow view of a blanketed star blasted sky.
What happened next was nothing short of chaos. Cars revved loudly and pulled alongside us, stereo blaring and regurgitating several youths from each vehicle. The roof-tent blazed orange as a whoosh of petrol fuelled a spontaneous bonfire. A stereo blurted out frenzied Russian tunes. Peering from a crack in our mosquito screen we could make out nine young figures; chatting, shouting, drinking, swaying… climbing our ladder. The flames licked precariously close to our flammable home. Andy conversed hurried pleasantries as he scrambled down the ladder. Hoisting up the ladder like fleeing pirates pulling up their anchor, Andy revved Bee-bee into action, bumping away down the track with me spread-eagle still on the mattress, clinging onto duvet and ladder.
We reached the road and packed the tent away with huge sighs of relief. A new site was needed for our sleepy-selves but a thick fog had descended obscuring all but a few metres. Out of the opaque mist appeared two white owls, like fleeting ghostly apparitions across our path. Our paltry map, on which we were following a dubious, faint dotted line, showed a bridge nearby but a crawl through the murkiness came to an abrupt end on a riverbank. We could just make out some kind of vessel on the far bank so we turned back and made our way into a meadow where, exhausted at 3.30am, we clambered into the roof-tent for the second time.
There’s something quite mystifyingly magical about waking up in a place you arrived at by dark. Sunshine poured into the tent as the side was unzipped to reveal Siberian countryside in all its pastoral glory. Fragrant grassland buzzed with bees and butterflies and sparkling daylight reflected from the peaceful, snaking river. Heading to the dubious ‘port’ we discovered three other vehicles on the baking hot bank already waiting for the first sailing of the day; a small milk bowser, rusty pick up truck and the obligatory Russian Lada. Stood smoking next to his pick-up, the driver looked like an extra from an eighties Michael Jackson video with a sheer black fishnet vest and baggy camouflage trousers. He categorically shunned my cheerful attempt of “доброе утро” (good morning).
Finally we rattled over the hazardous ramp onto what was more of a floating (just) rotting wooden platform towed by an inadequate small boat straining across the muddy water. We paid our 20 Ruble fare to a cheerful plump man who repeatedly pointed at his Chelsea football cap on realising we were “angliyskiy”. Our subsequent river-hugging route took us into a small town, its dusty insignificance emphasised by its callous absence on the map. A young mother battled with a pushchair across the corrugated road, spluttering and squinting in the plume of dust kicked up by the inconsiderate truck rumbling ahead through the nowhere town.
As the dust settled, horses, sheep, lambs and goats continued to amble in makeshift pens around rickety cottages. We stopped for supplies in the local supermarket; piles of tins, jars, boxes, plastic, sacks and plastic wrapping turned the aisles into an obstacle course. The only immaculate aisle was an entire stand of several long shelves filled with an array of meticulously arranged vodka bottles. The arduous task of identifying even the simplest of items began. We bought bread rolls and water. We got sweet buns and salty carbonated clear liquid. The cashier took our money wide-eyed and stern, her bright red hair clashing with her thick, vivid purple eyeliner and lipstick. Smothered giggles echoed around the store from young staff hiding in the gangways; we were foreign strangers in these parts, rare visitors frequently met with a mix of curiosity, suspicion and wariness.
A request to a passer-by in (very crude) Russian was met with a look of sheer horror and a hurried escape down the street. A range of pump-filling sketches and gesticulations eventually directed us to the local petrol station where further confused communications resulted in a finger pointed to the town exit where we would pick up a surfaced road again. A foray into the unknown, forgotten wilds of rural Siberia ended with a bullet-peppered blue road sign directing us back into urban civilisation.