AS THE rain lashes down at Moscow airport, so hard that I can barely see the Airbus I’ve just swapped for an airport bus, I’ll admit the early signs are not good.
This is my first trip to Russia and things aren’t going well. Check-in lines longer than the Great Wall of China have plagued me ahead of all three flights and horrific weather has now enveloped the entire Moscow area, leading to a slow-down at the airport and the sort of leaving queue that makes Wembley car park after the FA Cup final look like a brief picnic.
Fortunately it doesn’t last, and by the time I’m shuttled slowly back out (way out beyond pylons, construction work and a slow-moving tractor, into a corner of land that I’m not even sure is still on the airport) to a connecting Tupelov, the evening sky had transformed into a beautiful dark blue criss-crossed with shreds of spent clouds.
I’m on the way to take part in an epic near-10,000-mile drive from Mazda’s factory in Hiroshima to the Frankfurt Motor Show, the intention being for the cars to arrive a day or two before the show’s doors open in September. The route is divided into sections averaging about 1,300 miles each, with journalists and Mazda representatives from all over the world taking stages in groups of 16.
Attempting to settle into the Tupelov’s board-hard seat for the nine-hour flight, opposite a man loading what looks like two cat transport boxes full of groceries into the overhead compartment, I look again at our route plan. Ours is the longest section on the whole trip, with the longest single day’s driving as well. It’s also the most remote, says the inappropriately chirpy Mazda rep our group had picked up at Frankfurt.
After what seems like weeks stuck in a small seat next to a fat man, forced to keep my arms wedged into the negligible gap between my hips and the armrests, we land, transfer from the stray/wild dog-strewn airport to the border city of Blagoveshchensk and check into a hotel. Across that border is China, just a modest river’s width away, but we’re not going there. I suspect that the idea of letting a bunch of Western journalists into the country to help promote a Japanese car might raise a few eyebrows in Beijing, so the necessary visas would have been borderline impossible to come by.
Before turning in for the night, nine hours ahead of our friends and family at home, there’s dinner. Don’t ask me what it was, because I don’t even want to know. I think there may be a percentage of dog/cat/miscellaneous meat in it.
The next morning came quickly and we launched into our task with relish. Sort of, anyway; we were waiting for ages for someone to come back from the shops with energy drinks. Apparently, on the previous stage a driver and co-driver in the same car both fell asleep at the same time, so cans of drinks called Burn, Adrenaline and EON Energy (no, really) are thrust upon us to stop a repeat performance.
And soon we realise why the pair were so tired. A combination of insane local drivers, roads that can’t really be called roads because of their general unsuitability for carrying any sort of motorised vehicle, and endless slow-moving trucks on single-carriageway main roads mean that this is genuinely hard work.
Keeping the Chinese border about 30 miles to our left, my co-driver and I find ourselves one of eight brand new Mazda3s, bucking, weaving and swaying along in an effort both to keep the speed up and avoid ripping a wheel off in potholes deeper than the crater on Mount Fuji. The worst thing is the fierce undulation where parts of the road have sunk, creating yumps that see some of the cars, including ours, fully airborne on more than one buttock-clenching occasion.
As such the scenery literally flies by, getting slightly hillier as the day goes on. We’re roughly following the Trans-Siberian Railway and we often catch extended glimpses of huge trains with dozens of cars full of who knows what. Fuel, new cars (Mazda uses it to get production-fresh models to Moscow) and miscellaneous meats all cross my mind.
The miles disappear in a haze of pothole/oncoming traffic/yump warning instructions delivered over two-way radios by the car at the head of the chain, and one thing strikes me: where’s the wildlife? On the plane (possibly as part of a cramp-induced hallucination) I’d expected bears, herds of grazing animals and majestic eagles everywhere. A single eagle all day was all we saw; the explanation from our Russian guide being that because the country is so big, animals have no need to go anywhere near the road. And it is THE road. There’s no other way to get to our evening stopover unless you have a helicopter handy. Even the myriad side junctions go nowhere, with most ending in a wide mound of dirt as soon as their apertures straighten out.
A tough day’s driving eventually comes to an end at a strange roadside hotel where the restaurant is also the bar (not unusual) and the local disco (on second thoughts…). It’s empty of punters tonight, but that doesn’t make it any less odd to be eating more of the, err, unfamiliar local cuisine to what sounds like decades-old Russian dance music. As I head back to my room and drift off to sleep in a room endowed with an unpleasant smell I just can’t place, I decide it was probably a CD of the country’s Eurovision entries. Things, as D:Ream once sang, can only get better.