Mountains, Mud and Meat: Off-Roading in Russia
Robb Pritchard joins a self-drive 4x4 holiday tour in the Russian mountains.
For off-roaders there's nothing better than going out for a weekend green-laning or having a bash around a pay and play site somewhere. Maybe, if you're really serious about your Land Rover, you'll go on a proper overseas off-roading holiday to somewhere like Croatia or Morocco every few years. But if you want to explore a little further afield you'll come across a geographical limitation because anywhere else will take a week to get to before you even start any off-roading... Which is where Fly-Drive companies come in.
After working for nearly twenty years with huge trans-Asian expeditions Aljona Dudashili and her husband Andrei are downscaling slightly to focus on more family and friend oriented off-roading holiday tours in their home country of Russia. Run with all the experience amassed from decades of organising high-end expeditions for clients such as VW and Land Rover the first holiday will be early next year in the stunning Caucasus mountains in southern Russia. And to check that all the routes will be interesting and challenging enough for their European customers they invited our regular writer Robb Pritchard to help with the final reccy...
The first road out from our luxury base at the Dahovskaya Sloboda hotel was up the side of a gravel quarry with big and overloaded trucks hurtling towards us and for a few minutes I was wondering if the Russian idea of 'soft roading' was a bit too soft. Nope. Up front in the lead car Gennady turned off down an unmarked trail into the forest and I was suddenly fumbling for the 4L button as the UAZ slewed around in the muddy ruts. Some detours around some deep water-filled holes forced us to slide around inches from the trees having great fun furiously turning the wheel fully one way then the other. It wasn't just playing in the mud for the sake of it though as after a few km we came out on a ridge of karst outcrop called the Devils Finger.
Imagine the Alps without the Italians. Our beautifully liveried UAZs parked high on the side of a ledge, the landscape below, stretching off to distant snowcapped peaks was carpeted with an almost unbroken vista of trees, gently changing to all shades of rust and russet in the early autumn light. It looked like what our distant ancestors would have seen as they stepped out of their caves. The landscape is not quite an untamed wilderness though, and if you know where to look, and have the equipment to get you through, it's criss-crossed with logging trails and fishermen's routes… and this region of southern Adygea was where we were about to spend week exploring.
A bit later back down in the valley, looking for a way to cross the wide and lazy river, our track took us through a field. It didn't seem too much at first but it was made for tractors so the rocks it was littered with all had to be negotiated very carefully nd we inched along in 2nd _low. Unsighted in the long grass I missed one got the axle beached. The horrible grinding noises it made getting off it sounded terrible but the UAZ is a tough little machine designed for the rigours if Russian driving. The setting sun through the tall grass made for some great photos but then in the half dark there was a broken bridge that we had to cross. We both needed spotting over the smashed pieces of concrete that was all that was left of it and Gennady chose a strange angle for me to ease over. Not knowing what was under the wheels was quite unnerving and it was at that precise moment that an oak tree decided to let loose a few acorns onto the roof. The noise sounded just like something in the transmission snapping, but Gennady knew what he was doing. It didn't take too long to work out what his hand signals meant and then we were over. Even though the A/T tyres aren't that aggressive and the Patriot feels rather agricultural, it never got close to getting stuck, no matter where we took it. This is no trip for beginners though, you'll need a good understanding of what a 4x4 can do to tackle this tour.
Making a good off-road route is all about challenge and reward. Over the river, with the water lapping over the lights so I was temporarily blinded in the middle, we parked up on the pebbles on the opposite bank to go to the nice restaurant on the other side where we dined on shashliks and tea made from local herbs… a combination that would become a theme of the trip.
My favourite day of the week was in the little village of Arkhyz. Despite being in a valley surrounded by snowcapped peaks it wasn't cold, yet the cafes had stoves burning so the whole place had the lovely pervading aroma of woodsmoke. To get to the off-road trail into the mountains it was choice of either a dodgy looking wooden bridge or a rather deep river crossing. For the photos we did both! And it didn't get much easier either. It wasn't long before we needed 4L to pick a line up a very rough hill and we saw why it was in such a bad condition when a massive KAMAZ logging truck came sliding around the corner at what seemed like Dakar speed. With muddy pools, side slopes, having to choose lines between the rocks and over deep ruts that needed straddling, and even a hundred metre long section that went up the river, the 6km route had everything to make it a mini-expedition.
For normal 4x4s the trail ends up at the beginning of the hiking route but into the river around a huge granite boulder with Gennady spotting me round some of the bigger rocks we tried to carry on to get as close to the glacier as possible. But with the snow lying in deep drifts we couldn't get much further, so turned around and had a picnic nearby with the most breathtaking mountain backdrop instead. Gennady struck up a conversation with a weathered-faced shepherd who was looking after his herd of cows. Gravelly voice hardened by a good half century of chain-smoking he called out commands to his shaggy vicious looking dog, but still posed for a photo. It was an incredible place to visit but I couldn't imagine what a harsh life it must be to live and work there.
Back down the trail, the wooden bridge over the fast flowing river sagged worryingly as we inched over but on the other side we found a local guy who made some delicious lamb shaskliks for us. Drinking tea with herbs picked from the valley while sitting in the BBQ smoke of your own dinner is a great way to work up your appetite.
The biggest mountain in the Caucasus, and in the whole of Europe, is the 5642m high Elbrus, which is actually a long-dormant volcano. The gravel road lead us through some barren steppe country with just a few forsaken-looking farmer's villages dotted here and there, but Gennady knew which random tracks led over the hills to dramatic viewpoints and the UAZs parked at the top of precipices makes for great drone footage… Through a stunning 100m deep gorge the track headed up through deeper and deeper drifts of snow and fallen rocks until we slithered our way up until over another rickety bridge… where we came across a perfect tarmac road. Apparently it was made so that the governor of the region can drive to his country house on the side of the mountain in comfort. Russia might be a much nicer place to live than it was when I first visited twenty years ago but it is still openly corrupt enough to make a European blush.
“Elbrus is right there,” Kennedy said, pointing ahead, but the autumn haze made the horizon blank. As we got closer though I could just make out something shining in the sky. I couldn't work out what it was, but a photo with a filter on the lens showed what I couldn't see; it was the sun's reflection on the wind-polished glacier that sits on the top. When we were finally close enough to see the majesty of the peak, it was an incredible sight. 600m higher than even Monte Blanc it was also properly cold… but I got warm enough later that night in a town called Kislovodsk when we went to a traditional Russian banya. Not content to just lie in the heat the Russian way is to wear funny hats (which stop your head overheating) and whip each other with branches of leafy oak twigs. Getting over the initial shock of it being a bit like some BDSM session it does leave a lovely feeling on the skin, a bit like having nice back scratch. It's not so lovely on the soles of the feet though... or in the eye either, which brought a slightly premature end to my sweat-fest experience.
The last evening was in a plush restaurant with tea served from a large copper pot and plates piled high with BBQed meat, local cheeses and little meat pies. At the end of the trip I was in need of a shave and some sleep, but my full belly and mind was full of wonderful impressions and memories. It might have only been a reccy tour but it was a real trip to remember!
The region: The locals say Adygea is Caucasus culture first, not Russian. The countryside is so underdeveloped it's like looking a few hundred years back in time when villages in Europe were made up of drover communities and subsistence farmers. Get higher into the mountains though and the views are like the Alps back in the stone-age as there are some views where there's almost no evidence of human activity. Off-roading in endless oak forests, the like that haven't been seen in Europe for a thousand years, is something rather special too. Especially in autumn where the colours are simply gorgeous.
The accommodation will be plush in most places, but utter luxury larger in others, such as Dahovskaya Sloboda where we had our first nights on the trip.
The company. The name Drive to Russia might not be grammatically correct but they know exactly what they are doing with a group of people in 4x4's. With nearly twenty years of experience running much bigger expeditions through much harder to operate in countries such as China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a week long soft-roading holiday is well within their capabilities. The Western Caucasus mountains in the rugged foothills of Europe's tallest peak make for one of the most stunning places for green-laning I have ever had the pleasure to explore. But as rough as some of the trials are, as inclement as the mountain weather can sometimes be, there will always be nice hotel with a soft bed waiting for you every day. And if Gennady is in charge he is a brilliant guy and knows everything about the country as well as being an off-road expert.
The cars. A factory standard UAZ Patriot is certainly not a Land Cruiser, but it is still a very capable Russian-made 4x4 and once you get used to the rather loose steering, the wide spread of gears and noticeable lack of torque it's fine to drive. The overall experience is quite similar to a Land Rover 90. 4L is just a button away for all the tough stuff, which on A/T tyres is enough to handle everything on the tour. The full fleet are brand-new vehicles. Mine had 15,000km on the clock when I picked it up in Moscow…. A few more when I gave it back again...
For more information please visit drive-to-russia.com/