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Driving to Russia: The First Time

The snow was falling heavily and we were steadily going up in height on what looked like a mountain. We couldn't really tell as it was pitch black. We didn't know exactly where we were, except that we had crossed the border an hour ago and were now somewhere in Slovakia. Soon, after attempting a hill a bit too cautiously, the wheels of our 1980 Opel Cortina 2.5 just spun and we weren't going anywhere. Igor and I got out and guided the car while Mark let it coast slowly back down the icy road so we could try again. 

We had no idea how long this dreadful weather and these unforseen hills would go on for, we just knew it was best to go as slowly as possibly as there were no guard rails to keep us from sliding over the edge. After successfully negotiating a few more hills, which seemed an eternity, we came to and followed a flat river valley where we soon started to see lights of civilization. We stopped at the first town, got a hotel room and went to sleep. It was midnight after all and we'd been on the road since 10 a.m.

The three of us were a very unlikely trio. Two American cousins, Mark and I, and our Russian friend Igor. Mark and Igor were studying for advanced degrees at a university in Germany. I'd come from my adopted home in England to join them in driving Igor's old German Opel all the way to Moscow. I came along as one of the two drivers. Believe it or not, the car belonged to Igor, but he couldn't drive! He'd acquired this old car for practically nothing and was going to get it back to mother Russia at all costs. "I'll learn to drive later" was his claim. We left Munich the following Spring morning in crisp, dry weather, not having any idea what we'd be encountering later that night.

I took over driving the morning following our winter encounter. We left around 8:00 and had quite good roads all the way to the Ukraine border five hours later; making a pit stop just before to stock up on gas. Igor heard that gas supplies were scarce in the Ukraine, so we filled up 5 gallon containers in the last modern gas station to be seen. At the border we encountered problems of a different nature. This was no inter-European border crossing, we were heading into the former Soviet Union and damn glad we weren't truckers.

The truck lines waiting for immigration were horrific! We rolled up slowly to the border, passing tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer, parked nose to tail, waiting. 

Their wait was measured in days not hours. Luckily, private vehicles could by-pass most of the red tape. We didn't spend more than two hours with the wait and formalities. 

When our turn came up we got a few stern looks from the guards. One kept eyeing Mark's passport photo, then eyeing him. He explained to Igor that Mark didn't look like the person in the photo. It took a few more hard looks from the photo to Mark and back before he was happy, as if he was waiting for the photo to jump out and tell him that Mark was a spy or something. Then while Igor was dealing with the paperwork, Mark decided to get out and take a photo of me and the car at the border. 

I told him not to as I was sure they wouldn't appreciate it. "Don't worry" he said, and 'snap.' He was spotted. The guards, with Igor in tow, came over and demanded to know what was going on. Igor spent five minutes convincing them that Mark wasn't a spy and that those crazy Americans just like a photo of everything for the album! They bought the story and Mark even got away with the film. We continued on, away from the border and on the road to L'vov; feeling sorry for the truckers on this side going into Slovakia, as the waiting game looked even longer.

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Border crossing of Slovakia and the Ukraine.


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