It was only about an hour or so from our strange and crappy hotel to the Russian border. This part is crazy. Somehow, somehow, the most difficult country to get a visa for ended up being one of the fastest to get into. They handed us a super high tech device to count how many people were in our car, after which we gave them our passports to check us in and at the gate on the way out we had to hand back the high tech counting device that verified we still only had 3 people.
The goal today would be to make it up to Barnaul, which would be around 6 hours if the roads were good and we had no problems. Surprisingly the roads in Russia were pretty darn good. That being said there was about an hour’s worth of driving on a road that was under construction, and since it had recently rained it was quite muddy. But we didn’t get stuck, and once we got back on to the main road it was smooth sailing. Some time after noon we decided to try to find some food. Our trusty TEP wireless device works in Russia, so we tried to find the next biggest town coming up hoping that we would come across a bank as well. We had no Russian money.
Google maps led us straight in to this town right off the main road, and then straight to the bank. How convenient. Except the bank wasn’t a bank, it was an apartment building. An old one at that, most definitely had never been a bank. Oh well. We’d also learned that it was pretty difficult to find anything on the map because businesses don’t really use English keywords, and we obviously don’t read the gibberish that is Russian. We figured we would just drive down main street and eventually we should run into something. We did! We originally stopped because we found a convenience store, but it turned out there was a restaurant that was opening up right across the street.
We were the first people in the place that day, and there’s a good chance we were the first British and American group to be in there for that matter. The poor waitress was very confused. We did our best with google translate, and were able to get a beer, a Caesar salad and some meat dish. Pretty cheap too. Oh yeah, here’s a Russian Caesar salad. It has no lettuce, but it does have cabbage, carrots, pickles and olives. Oh, and mayonnaise for the dressing. Silly Russians.
About an hour after lunch we had a bit of a problem. Two of our pothole magnets eventually went out. One of the tires straight went very flat very quickly, and when Mitch noticed the steering was a little wonky around a turn we stopped to check. By that time the rear right tire was completely shredded. The rim had massive dents in it, so we decided that one had run it’s course. The front right was leaking a lot as well, so we had to swap that one out too. This meant we were down to zero spares, so we’d have to be extra careful the rest of the way.
We got into Barnaul around 6 or so and eventually found our hotel. For a solid hour there was a lot of confusion and back and forth with the woman who worked the front desk. We had made reservations for 2 rooms through Booking.com, but apparently they had given one of the rooms away to someone else. Turns out that other person(s) was the Birch brothers! We were trying to plan a rendezvous before we trekked into Mongolia, and by god somehow we were all able to meet up again! Thankfully there was a Russian guy staying in the hotel that spoke English well enough to work out our dilemma. He even offered to give us his room!
By 8 or so everyone was ready to go find a drink and some dinner. We wandered around for a while before stumbling across a place called Rock Bar, so we dipped in there. It was a pretty cool place, though we ended up being only 1 of 2 tables in a fairly big restaurant. It took absolutely forever to get our food as they were bringing the plates out one at a time, with sometimes 15 minutes in between. Whatever, the beer was being served fast.
About an hour or so into catching up with everyone, a Russian guy from the other table came over and invited me to have a drink with his group. I think by this point I was working on my fourth beer on an empty stomach, so I was in quite the social mood so gladly joined them. This is where I learned my first of many “Russian tradition!” One of the guys poured everyone a shot of vodka, but before we all did a cheers one of the other guys handed me a piece of salami. Oh by the way the table was covered in meat and cheese plates. Instead of merely pounding vodka, this Russian tradition involved a good cheers, drink the vodka, grab your deli meat and give it a good long smell, and then eat it. The Russians are quite silly, but the vodka was pretty damn good and they were a lot of fun.
This pretty much went on until they were out of salami. After we settled up we asked our new Russian friends where to go next. They told us to come with them, so someone called a few cabs and off we went to the next bar – Biker Bar. Aptly named because of the giant motorcycle out front.
At this point one of our Russian friends decided to fuck with us a lot, so he started pouring bigger and bigger shots of vodka, the last one being about half a pint glass. At that point we decided no more of that Russian tradition. Dude was pretty drunk, but his friends apologized and ended up leaving not that long after. We met another group at the bar though, so we hung out with them and then tagged along to a bar down the street. That bar was probably more like a club, but since it was Wednesday night it was dead empty so we just got drinks and did our best to mingle until 3am or so. So far Russia has been pretty darn cool.