Traveling by car
by Hagen Quasdorf
Formalities Before Your Departure
At first sight, the necessary papers don't seem to be different from those of people traveling by plane or train. For the duration of your journey, you will need a visa and occasionally, you'll also need an invitation for the visa. You can obtain it at a travel agency which has specialized in traveling to Russia. Since you're more likely to be stuck in Russia longer than you planned when traveling by car - keywords: break-downs and accidents - your visa should be valid for a few weeks after the time of your actual stay. On the visa, there will be a little note saying that you're traveling by car. In other respects, there are no differences.
At the Border
The least problematic way seems to be the entry via Finland. You'll spare yourself all the hustle and bustle in Belarus, the Ukraine, or the Baltic states. Everything is reduced to one border. At the border, the first thing to do is to fill out the usual customs declaration. The form is also available in English, and it can be filled out in English as well. On the back of the form, all necessary information about your vehicle will be recorded, too. After the passport controls and a check of your vehicle and luggage, you will received two documents. The first one is the customs declaration you're supposed to show again when leaving the country. The second document is important during your journey, too. It's a customs document which enables you to drive around with your registered vehicle in Russia. However, this document will always be issued for 2 months no matter how long your visa will be valid. Before the expiration of this 2-month-period, you have to get an extension at the customs. This is possible in any bigger city. Should you fail to do that, a confiscation of your vehicle is impending. The fee for this delinquency will be 100% of the value of your car; however, there is administrative discretion. The processing time is usually about a month. Me, I have spent 1 week at a customs court, and only due to a lot of luck and support of the customs officers, I got off lightly. Even the embassy won't be able to help you in a case like this.
Spot Checks on the Road
Spot checks by the DPS (used to be GAI) will be conducted at many strategically points such as roads into and out of the city, bridges, and bigger intersections. Being a foreigner, you will be stopped quite regularly, of course. The documents most often asked for are passport, driver's license, car documents, and the customs document for your vehicle. The police officers' knowledge differs a lot. Rarely, you will be asked at spot checks for a little extra to the cop's salary. Occasionally, you will be asked to show Russian documents or translations of them respectively. Since this is not necessary, however, there's no reason to hand over your money to the police officer. Usually, things will be going smoothly after a few minutes. Sometimes, streets will be closed at check points during the night.
Especially in the European part, the militia will be extremely present. Every few kilometers, there will be a patrol car at the roadside. Most of the time, they're doing radar controls; violations of bans on passing are also avenged a lot. Contrary to their colleagues at the DPS check points, the militia seems to be chronically underpaid. Once stopped, you only have 2 options: either you play the "I don't understand anything"-card, which will be successful - meaning you will be allowed to continue your drive without having to pay anything - after about 10 to 30 minutes. Your other option is "the Russian way", that is to say, you hand 100 Rouble (or 2 - 3 Dollar) to the police officer and continue your drive. On bad days, however, this can get quite expensive.
Generally speaking, there are hardly any differences to German traffic rules. However, rules are one thing, Russian drivers are another. Thus, keep the following hints on behavior in Russian traffic in mind. First of all, Russians don't have mercy for their jalopies at all. Bad roads, heavy traffic, darkness, broken bumpers, no matter what, they always take their cars to the limit. Pedestrians and bikers are just obstacles in this mission. And they are treated accordingly. In order to advance even faster, the lay-by (as well as gravel roads) will be used to overtake. Traffic lights seem to be yet another obstacle to an efficient flow of traffic. In order to allow everybody to drive in the front rows, a third, a forth, or even a fifth lane is likely to be formed. During sunset, and occasionally during the night, too, Russian drivers like to drive with parking light or no light at all. Due to those bad drivers and the often very bad condition of the road surface, I can't help advising against nightly drives. In case of accidents, you always have to call the police, and you must not change anything at the place of accident until they have arrived. I'd also like to mention and important law at this point. Driving a vehicle is only allowed if you are either the owner yourself or if you're in the company of the owner. The fee for violations of that law can be up to 200% of the value of the vehicle.
The gas and diesel supply is sufficient today. In many areas, gas stations spring up like mushrooms. On the most important highways such as M10, M52, etc. there will be a gas station at least every 200 kilometers. Diesel, 76 (80) octane gas and 92 octane gas ("regular" in Germany) are always available.
For 95 octane gas (here: "super") you should allow for at least 500 km, and for 98 octane gas ("super plus") you should plan on a range of 1,000km. In remote areas, you will usually only find diesel and 76 (80) octane gas, occasionally also 92 octane.
Prices during the summer of 2003:
Diesel: 8,00 to 10,00 Rouble per liter (1 liter = ~0.264 US gallon)
Gas, 76 (80) octane: 8,00 to 10,00
Gas, 92 octane 10,00 to 12,00
Gas, 95 octane 11,50 to 13,50
Gas, 98 octane 13,00 to 15,00
Spare parts for Russian vehicles can also be found in more remote areas. Otherwise, Japanese cars are most common. German cars can only be found in European parts of Russia in higher numbers; thus, the range of spare parts is rather limited. In general, you will have problems finding spare parts for older foreign cars. Since motorbikes, except for Russian ones, will rarely be found on the roads, the range of spare parts is accordingly bad.
Condition of Road Surface
The condition of the road can differ from region to region. You will find everything from highway-like conditions comparable to Germany to country-road-like / gravel-road-like conditions, even on arterial roads. Nevertheless, most places can be reached by car. When looking for a place off the beaten track to stay overnight, you will soon find your limits. Even though the most arterial roads and the streets in cities have been asphalted, you have to concentrate on driving all the time. Any time and no matter where you are, abysmal road holes and missing gully lids can suddenly appear in front of you.
Since August 2003, Russian drivers are obliged to have automobile liability. Since the green card of a German insurance company won't be valid, taking a separate insurance is recommended even though they don't ask you at the border to do that. One option is to take an insurance like this in Germany, the other option is to do it in Russia. I have paid 80 Euro for a 4-month insurance for my all-wheel Mitsubishi L300 in Russia.
Choice of Vehicles and Equipment
Of course, cars common in Russia are recommended. Among them are Toyota Landcruiser, especially HD J80/100 but not the HZJ models, and HiAce, LiteAce and HiLux, Mitsubishi Pajero and L300, Nissan Patrol and Terrano, Subaru. You will rarely find VW Bus and Landrover. A first-aid kit and a fire extinguisher belong to the statutory equipment. A long retrieval belt, a spade, and a good car-jack are as important as one or better two spare wheels. In order to avoid having to walk in remote areas in the case of a break-down or accident, I recommend taking sufficient amounts of motor oil, transmission oil as well as brake fluid and cutting oil. Having an oil filter and an air filter as well as sufficient tools is also an advantage since garages are often badly equipped.
Since gratuitous acquisition of a vehicle doesn't put a smile on the face of every person involved, you should only leave your car unattended somewhere for a short time. In cities, there are some car parks with surveillance (Avtostoyanka) for about 40 Rouble per night. In the country, you should ask the locals for a place to park your car. Alarm devices for a Russian car are as self-evident as its 4 wheels. Even old, rickety Ladas have one of those yowling things; whether this saves your car from a real professional is another question.