How Dangerous is Russia?..

U2 TOUR TRUCKS ENTER RUSSIA

After the terrorist bombing of Moscow airport on 24th January, Russia has been catapulted to the fore of our minds. Right now, The Foreign Office advises us to avoid specific regions of Russia for all but essential travel. But take extremists out of the equation; are we left with a safe land in which we can freely roam?

Russian truckingWell, every year there are rock concerts in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. How does the stage equipment arrive? We truck it overland from Western Europe. And we’re assigned armed escorts to accompany the convoy.

Dangerous? Yep..but not in the way you’d think.

Last year a cavalcade of trucks on the U2 Tour headed southeast from Finland. We were destined for Russia’s capital, and I was driving somewhere in the middle. Namibian, naturally, was practically glued to my back doors. You know how he panics.

THE RUSSIAN FRONTIER

Predictably, Finnish formalities were completed in minutes; all those saunas do wonders for efficacy. (Did you know there are well over two million saunas in Finland, yet a population of only five million?) On the Russian Federation’s side, however, it was a different kettle of fish. Bureaucracy there is as bewildering as the Enigma Code; they get so het up about collating innumerable white forms. If only they’d relax..

We spent twelve hours on the Russian side. Frosty-faced harridans typed on antiquated keyboards; eastern European truckers grunted. The former eschewed smiles as dangerously progressive. The latter proudly sported socks with sandals.One driver is Bulgarian!

TRUCKING IN RUSSIA

There are few rules. Or rather, the rules are broken. Between St. Petersburg and Moscow I saw five dead bodies. Seriously. And they weren’t the result of a massive pile-up; I saw five discrete incidents. Sadly, the zero tolerance law on drink-driving holds little currency in Russia; inebriated motorists are rife.

One minute I was delighting in the weather-boarded dachas spooling past, the next minute – disaster. A car had spun and mounted a salesman’s roadside stand. The innocent vendor – probably a father, maybe even a grandfather – was beneath the car, presumed dead. His plastic pots of fruit were scattered, vivid splats of reds and blues amongst the birch trees.

Russian truckA little further on, I saw a car jacked up precariously on off-cuts of wood, a guy lying beneath the vehicle. Our trucks were passing – at 90 km/h – just inches from his body. And this is with cars weaving in and out, their drivers engaged in a sinister version of The Cannonball Run.

‘I wouldn’t mind but I was actually on the hard shoulder when I see him,’ said my friend Darren over the CB. A car with battered wings shot past seconds later, wildly undertaking. Seconds earlier and…OK, this was getting nasty. The CB radio went quiet. The zany driving had been kind of fun to begin with, but now we’d seen actual bodies. And they don’t bother covering them up in Russia..

Trying to reach Brazil..

Did you know this? There isn’t a single proper shop inside Madrid’s airport. Oh, sure, you can buy spirits, tobacco and fragranced fripperies till your heart’s content. But try getting stranded there for a day without essentials – amongst spurious rumours of an onward flight to South America – and you’ll see what I mean. Toothpaste? Forget it. Change of ordinary underpants? Not a hope in hell. Deodorant? Frankly, unpleasantness has reared its ugly head in Madrid.

‘Which brand would sir like?’ asked a particularly effeminate Spaniard, leading me by the wrist to his products, and then dropping back to cop a glance at my buttocks. Yep, I caught him at it; so I clenched and winked. Well, smiled whilst I happened to blink unskilfully and accidentally. ‘Calvin Klein, perhaps?’ he continued, in a manner so oily that one could have fried chips with it.

‘Prices start from €16, sir’ he finished soupily, and he did something peculiar with his hand. €16? For a stick of deodorant? Are you f…? Where are Boots and Superdrug? He tutted, yet bade me an exultant farewell, and minced off to attend to another customer, leaving me wondering what on earth is so special about this deodorant. Well, needless to say, sir wasn’t bowled over with enthusiasm to purchase said product. Sir was supposed to be on a budget. And, come to that, sir oughtn’t even to have been here.

‘There will be a 55-minute delay,’ an announcer had declared in one of Heathrow T3’s departure lounges. Should be OK, I’d murmured to myself naively. Still got time to change planes. Of course, had I known then that those dashed Frogs were plotting a concerted air strike, I might have gritted my teeth more vigorously.

Honestly, if it’s not port blockades with that lot, it’s air traffic controllers refusing to man the radar. And if it’s not airport personnel stoutly shirking work – due, I imagine, to a flagon of Burgundy for lunch – it’s doubtless something else. You know what the French are like: a gelded stallion for luncheon and a foal for supper. Incomparably potty, the lot of them.

No, actually, nuttiness and idleness notwithstanding, most of the time I applaud their attitude. Their  “pull the ladder up, Jack; sod the rest” philosophy is not necessarily a bad thing. But, with a little present wrapped up in silk sheets in a Brazilian hotel that evening, I was hardly tickled pink at the delay. After all the confusion – and refuelling to skirt French airspace – we arrived in Madrid two hours late.

‘The flight to Sao Paolo?’ I asked, fingers and toes crossed. ‘Gone,’ answered the thickset man behind the information desk. He looked as if he would lose little sleep over my plight. ‘What about Miami, Quito and Cancun,’ asked others. He shrugged and directed us to a queue at the Iberia desk snaking a hundred metres along the concourse.

On the way – in fact every eighty yards or so – smokers puffed merrily away in little booths with open doors and no roofs. Ah, but this was November; apparently (according to my anonymous source in the south of Spain) the country has recently seriously banned smoking instead of simply pretending. So, at Spanish bars from now on, there will be no more butts amongst the tortilla crumbs and spittle. Seems almost a shame.

‘I give you voucher for lunch and dinner,’ said the placatory desk clerk after a lengthy delay, whilst I snarled at some French lesbians.. And, after a spot of further prompting: ‘Yes sir, and a hotel if you want.’ Course I bloody do. Think I’m going to pace barefoot for the next twelve hours until the overnight flight? Ahem. Ooh, but look: a ray of sunshine. Well, more of a blob, really.

As serendipity would have it, I arrived at the hotel in time to enjoy a complimentary bottle of red with three girls from Surinam. ‘Three kisses,’ demanded Tess after I’d kissed only two of her cheeks. How was I to know that the third smacker wasn’t to be planted in the middle? She blushed.

Dinner was quite another matter. There was rather an unseemly queue for the hotel restaurant…so, bristling with élan, I brushed past the maitre d and sat down opposite an English girl. Granted, beggars can’t be choosers – she had dreadlocks and, as I soon discovered, a fetish for needles – but there was an open bottle of wine on the table. And I’d seen she was alone at the airport.

‘Sorry I’m late, honey,’ I gushed ostentatiously and drew up a chair. The waiter, hitherto debating whether to throw me out, seemed satisfied and brought me an extra glass and some cutlery for the buffet. Things were looking up. ‘I’m really only going to South America to escape a raging drug addiction,’ said the pretty Rastafarian eighteen-year-old. ‘I just love ketamine.’ Oh, the small talk at these black tie events, eh?..