A rusty old Lada Niva driving down icy, pothole-riddled forest track in the wilderness… This is the old image of off-roading in Russia, but things have changed somewhat since the fall of the USSR, today it’s a huge convoy of Hummers powering through the trees. The soldier saluting the line of American trucks entering the army training ground with a flushed look of wonder on his young face is another indication of how much times have changed but the instructions for me not to speak a word of English near anyone in uniform, as my presence in this military zone as a foreigner is strictly prohibited, reminds me that some things change slower than others...
The 'Octogon' training base is like a densely forested Salisbury Plain with twisted remains of tanks poking out from the undergrowth. Near the middle is a large sandy quarry with a boggy centre streaked here and there with a few trails of marking tape. Forty Hummers, mostly H2s and H3s, but with a couple out outsized, H1s are parked in a rough semi-circle around a few marquee tents and even through the driving rain I can see that some are far from standard.
I was invited here by a friend I made at the Ladoga Trophy which had finished the weekend before. Marina Smirnova had done the Discovery class in her Hummer H2, but far from her exploits just being a bit of PR for the competition, she actually finished third! But a week is not enough time to recover from Ladoga even if all I was doing was taking photos and translating and I have to admit that when I woke at 6.30 on Saturday morning to see that it was pouring with rain I did consider turning the alarm off and rolling back over... The thought of people showing how shiny their wheel rims were wasn't really worth getting drenched for, but I have to say that in retrospect I am really glad I went.
Because of excessive importation taxes Hummers in Russia can cost almost twice what they do in Europe, but far from standing around admiring the reflective qualities of strips of expensive trim the first thing I saw was H2s and brand new H3s being driven around the course like battered Suzukis at a Play Day. The sight of a Hummer disappearing in a wall of lake water and then powersliding around a muddy corner is, in a dozen years of off-roading, is actually something I've never seen before. It was immediately obvious that this was a group of very rich Russians and they were out having fun with their toy Hummers in the way that the rest of us would treat a Radio controlled car. One of the H1s was parked with its bonnet up after its owner had been a little over-exuberant in the water and had managed to drown the engine. The air filter casing was full of dirty and gritty water and I asked what had he could do to fix it. “No fix. Engine dead,” his friend said. “So he buy new one. Again.” Apparently this was the third time he’d drowned it.
I suppose that if I slept in it I could just about afford the Land Rover Freelander parked up out of the way, but the ‘money is no object’ attitude the cars were being flung about with was a little intimidating. I felt a bit like a homeless guy that had missed the soup kitchen entrance and wondered into the Ritz by mistake. But Marina, with her Ladoga medal hung proudly over her neck, introduced me as 'foreign press' and my hand was shaken in welcomingly crushing grips as I was led over to look at some of the vehicles. The bonnet of one H2 came up to my chest and the lift kit looked spot-on, with a bracket mounting two extra shocks to stabilize the body roll that having such a big body lift causes. I’ve seen plenty of modded 4x4s in my time, but a lifted Hummer on a set of chunky 37s looks awesome and the guy is well chuffed with my appreciative nod. Unfortunately though his off-roading skills are not quite a match for his vehicle prepping capabilities as to do a snatch recovery on a beached H3 he ties a 2 ton strap around the back bumper on his 3 ton Hummer and then spent four times as long as the actual recovery trying to untie it. One thing I can now say though, is that those shackles on the front of a H3 are not just for show, they do work!
In the food tent they started handing out breakfast and glad to clasp my hands around a hot cup of coffee Marina tells me that this one of the biggest weekends in the Hummer Club's year. People from Moscow, Ekaterinburg in Siberia, as well as a couple who'd driven for three days from a city near the border with Kazakhstan had come for the event which was to include this off-roading, a trip to the near by historical town of Vyborg and a cruise on the Finnish gulf. Maybe its because of the weather but Marina tells me that she is a little disappointed that only 40 Hummers turned up. She was expecting nearer 200.
Glinting in the rare appearances of the sun are the finger-thick gold chains draped around some of the men’s necks and I realise I'm mingling with the country’s upper-class and understand that it is a kind of privilege. This is a side of Russia that many outsiders don’t get to see. It’s actually a side many Russians don’t get to see! But no matter at what level in the social strata they abide Russians are renowned for their hospitality. To a true Russian to have a guest is an honour and true to form as soon as he found out I was British the guy with the microphone was calling me over, holding the passenger door of a massive H1 open for me.
I had a smile on my face as I climbed in behind the huge industrial sized dashboard and greet the driver Phil across the implausibly large centre console. The interior is kitted out in cream leather and there is a TV screen set in the dashboard. This is no ex-military vehicle, it has been kitted out for both luxury and statement. It is a millionaire’s car. He motioned for me to put my seatbelt on, but I couldn’t imagine that I need it in my fortified seat, but less than 10 seconds later I was bracing myself against the leather-lined roof as we crashed over the course at high speed. I’d expected a sedate meander over the sand, but this was a comp-safari in a Humvee and it was insane! Through the tiny windscreen first I saw sky and then the ground as we bounced full-tilt around the course and then came the dull thump as the bow-wave came over the five foot high bonnet and slapped against it. But then after the initial shock I was incredibly impressed. Massive holes and bumps that would have swallowed or tipped lesser 4x4s were taken in its more than capable stride. We launched off the top of a bank and I waited for the jarring crash as the front suspension was ripped from the chassis…it was a jolt, but as though we were driving a bouncy castle with a bulbar we bounded on in comfort. Then there were a series of humps like ones often found in off-road driving centres. If there was an instructor sitting in the passenger seat he would have said to put it in first gear and let the engine do the work…but Phil put his foot to the floor and the way we hit the second bump put another achievement on my list of off-road activities… being airborne in a H1!
But then it was my turn at the wheel…
The steering wheel is really small and the bonnet isn’t all that long…my first 4x4 was a 60 series Land Cruiser which is just about comparable, but it’s when you look to the side and see how far away your passengers are sitting that you realise how huge this vehicle is.
A grumble and then the whistle of the turbo that turns the grumble into a roar and then sliding on the wet sand, we’re off. The power pushes the beast wide giving the impression that there is a delay to the steering. After a few wide turns I learn to steer before the corner and then wait for the vehicle to lazily turn when it wants… this is what being the captain of a North Sea ferry feels like. We come to a line of trees above a fierce looking side slope and the sheer size of the vehicle is disorientating as I actually have no idea where the front corner is so that I can pick the right line. I have spatial awareness issues like the very first time I ever drove a car and kept wondering over the central line… this is what being a woman driver feels like. I catch a few branches that are strong enough to push the mirror in and scratch down the side. It’s almost fun when I do this green laning, not giving much attention to the paint glaze, but on a Hummer it sounds terrible. And expensive. Phil casts me a warning look. If he wants me to replace a damaged wing mirror or repaint the doors I am instantly bankrupt… this is what a condemned man feels like.
Then there’s an almost sheer drop of about three meters off the bank and I can’t see a thing over the bonnet. My instinct is to get out and look, but I remember that Phil drove this without even lifting off last time around, so I ease forwards. The front wheels fall off and we’re tipping forwards. The belly catches on the top, but we’re still going over. The back wheels come to the edge and then over and suddenly the ground is right in front of us…this is what going over a cliff in a static caravan feels like… but there is no big impact. The amazing approach angle means that it’s the 40 inch tyres that hit the sandy bottom first and then Phil is shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” so that we have enough momentum to get up the next slope. I do. I press the gas pedal as far as it will go and see nothing but sky as 400 hp screams from next to me. Unsighted I miss the turn at the top and brake through the marking tape and frightened people scatter before me, abandoning their picnic in panic… this is what a tank driver bursting into a village feels like.
I park up and get out with a massive smile on my face as people look at me with a mixture of envy and awe… this is what being a Hummer driver feels like!