Russian rally

Was it the car or the country? The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov travelled from St Petersburg to Ek

In an old Lada, you will surprise no one in Russia and no one will notice you; Russia and the Lada are in complete harmony. Driving into Russia in a brightly painted Mercedes, one of 70 such cars, accompanied by their own fuelling station, is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, they crossed the border without me. I got into car number 69 in St Petersburg, where the crew, which had driven from Paris, handed over the ignition key. The next leg of the Paris-to-Peking rally course would take the 70 Mercs, including mine, to the Urals and Ekaterinburg.

A handful of people covered the entire rally course. They included the technical support group, the chief driver, Johannes Reifenrath, and the 63-year-old president and chief executive of DaimlerChrysler Thailand, Karl-Heinz Heckhausen - who was driving in a generally homeward direction anyway. The others, including me, all took part in one of the five legs of the journey. The participants were from 23 different countries. I was surprised to see the Ukrainian flag in the publicity material, and asked whether there really were any Ukrainian participants.

"You, of course!" came the reply.

That was when it sank in that I was a participant. Some 50,000 hopefuls had sent CVs and eulogies to the Mercedes-Benz rally website; 500 entrants were invited to Stuttgart for interviews, a medical and a test of their driving skills. On my leg there were two Estonians (both engineers), one Lithuanian, three Poles, one South African, four Swiss, six Americans and quite a few Germans. There was also a Russian team: two young chaps frequently to be seen posing for photographers draped in the Russian flag. I was certainly the only Ukrainian, invited as a writer rather than a competitor.

At St Petersburg, we were presented with our rally equipment - jacket, gloves, hat and rucksack with unbreakable Thermos flask. Then we were given a pep talk by the chief driver which included the warning: "Europe is behind you. Beware! Bad roads, unpredictable drivers and unpredictable traffic police lie ahead."

He seemed concerned that some cars might not make it to the Urals, and so, soon, we were all feeling nervous, spacemen heading off to an unknown planet.

At eight the next morning we assembled on Isakovskaia Square to set off. I had already met my partner driver, Oliver from Switzerland, and we were expecting a third team member - a certain Joe from New York. He had last been seen in the hotel bar at three in the morning, and after all attempts to find him had failed, having waited 90 minutes, we set off without him. Joe was the first victim of this little-known planet, "Russia".

No sooner had we crossed the city limits than a grey sky lowered itself over a road riddled with potholes, reminding us of the previous evening's pep talk. On either side, wooden houses flashed by, some occupied, some abandoned. Often a village had more abandoned than occupied houses. Their wooden façades, darkened by the damp, provoked autumnal thoughts. The great metropolis of St Petersburg was a world away. We were travelling in a Russia that had changed little since 1917. Occasionally, the modern era would intrude in the midst of the tumbledown cottages - a perfectly up-to-date petrol station, for example.

But mainly, the roadside services were remarkable for their simplicity. With surprising regularity we would pass a makeshift table on which stood a huge, old samovar, watched over by a woman bundled in layers of clothes. Dark coal smoke would rise from the samovar funnels and there would be a few token buns. On Russian roads, the most important thing is tea; everything else is an extravagance.

Fishwives and pilgrims

Now and again there would be a stretch of good road and we would see samovars and their keepers less frequently. They knew that drivers would brake and stop near a samovar only when the road was poor. On a half-decent surface, drivers want to fly past (checked only by the black-and-white stripe of a traffic policeman's baton). The speeding fines amused my fellow drivers, at least those who understood Russian. For exceeding the speed limit by 25 kilometres per hour, they were fined 100 roubles (about E3). Those who understood no Russian nervously handed over ten to 20 dollars and, thinking they had got off lightly, drove on.

Soon our drivers began to understand the headlight signals given by local drivers warning of traffic police and were able to avoid the fines.

Some 300 kilometres from St Petersburg, the "fish" villages began. Along the fences and on the gates of houses, in huge letters, were written the varieties of fish caught, smoked and sold locally. In the village of Zavidovo (from the word meaning "envy") we stopped outside one such fish house. The lady inhabitant, on seeing a camera pointed at her home and at the sign advertising her trade, immediately protested: "This is not a palace! There's nothing to photograph here!"

We moved 20 metres further down the road; the lady of this next house was more welcoming. She led us into her yard where, under a cloth, lay a smoked fish. She uncovered the fish and exclaimed: "That eel! It's only 1,500 roubles!" The price of fish obviously depended on the make of one's car. When the lady realised I spoke Russian without an accent, the price immediately fell to 1,000 roubles. But I really had no need of a metre-long smoked fish, so I opted for a smaller one, costing 100 roubles, and won the right to be photo graphed with the metre-long eel.

But the strongest image on that first part of the journey, for both Oliver and me, was the group of Orthodox pilgrims walking in the direction of St Petersburg. There were about ten: men in monks' gowns and women simply dressed with headscarves. One pilgrim carried a banner, another an icon. When they saw us, the icon-bearer turned it towards us as if, it seemed to me at the time, to ward off the devils in the foreign car. Later, I remembered the incident and realised that the icon had been pointed at us as a blessing for a safe journey. At the time, the dark group on the muddy road filled me with foreboding.

Moscow began suddenly. We jumped from one era into another. The single-storey wooden houses became fewer, until we were abruptly among the high rises of Moscow's suburbs. The dark evening was left behind. Above Moscow shone the bright sun of electric light, so that no one could say they had not seen the dawn of the new Russia. I felt sorry that Moscow was not a cake that could be cut into slices and shared throughout the land so that the other Russia - wooden, damp and puddle-ridden from lack of drains - could take some of the capital's energy, riches and optimism.

Later that evening, the rally participants ran about on Red Square and the nearby streets. I decided to take a walk along Varvarka, one of the corners of Moscow which dates back to when the Kremlin was Moscow. I saw the first British Mission building and the aristocratic town houses from the 15th century. Behind them, brightly illuminated, hundreds of builders were working in three shifts to dismantle the largest hotel in Europe, the Rossiya.

I stayed there once, in the Eighties. I think my room was on the ninth floor. I remember the 15-minute walk along corridors to get to it and the 15-minute search for the breakfast room the next morning. The ninth floor of the USSR's most important hotel had already disappeared. The architectural revolution is speeding up in Moscow. New buildings are overshadowing the old villas. On every road something is being built or reconstructed.

Early in the morning I made for the Old Arbat, where I wandered around for about an hour, watching the city's most popular street wake up. The first people to appear were Tajiks and Uzbeks. They swept and cleaned the road. Conversing quietly, they emerged from the side streets carting display stalls and cardboard boxes full of matrioshki and other souvenirs. A few English and American visitors walked by, briefcases in hand.

I heard the Russian language only later. Muscovites sleep longer and live a lot better than the immigrants who fill the vacancies that Russians disdain. Today, Moscow is swept and looked after by central Asia. Among wealthy Muscovites, it is fashionable to have a maid from the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. Most popular are young women who don't speak Russian. They earn about $600 a month and often never leave the flat in which they work, terrified by the huge city and their inability to communicate.

Recently, the newspapers wrote of a curious incident. A woman reported her Filipina maid missing after she ran out of the flat wearing only her housecoat. She had been told off for some small oversight. After a two-hour search, she was found in a neighbouring yard. Coming from a culture where voices are never raised, she had understood from her employer's intonation that she was about to be murdered.

Bright lights of Kazan

The Republic of Tatarstan can boast both oil and gas and its own Kremlin, in Kazan, where, apart from a number of Orthodox churches, stands a newly built mosque, the biggest in Russia. There is also a monument: a Russian standing beside a Tatar, their expressions making it clear that, together, they are about to build a new state. But you need to remember that in the 16th century Russia seized the Kazanski kingdom, which has since been part of the Russian empire - an empire now called the Russian Federation.

Our American companion, Joe, had caught up with us by plane in Moscow and travelled with us to Kazan. He was amazed at the brightness of the evening streets in the city centre, at the number of pedestrians and their relaxed deportment. There were casinos, clubs, boutiques and shopping centres and, at the heart of it all, the luxurious Shalyapin Palace Hotel. Here the rally drivers rested before continuing the journey east.

To discover the less-well-lit Kazan, I walked half a kilometre along a murky little street and saw a policeman outside a bar, truncheon at the ready.

"It's understandable," I thought to myself. "The peace has to be protected. After all, the bright lights of central Kazan are unlikely to shed their rays on this part of town for a good while." So I thought, until I came across a noticeboard with an announcement that caught my imagination. Someone wanted to buy a railway branch line, together with land.

"Good idea," I thought. "Branches are the right things to buy, especially those with trains on. The price of transport can only go up."

On a well-lit street in Kazan, I went into a café. I ordered a hot chocolate and, as I drank it, marvelled at the way the waitress jumped back and forth between Russian and Tatar. The Tatar women do not cover their heads. Later, I was made welcome at the biggest mosque in all Russia and taken to the balcony for "the press and tourists", as it was called. During Muslim festivals, up to 2,500 people worship in the mosque. For those who can't get in, the prayers and sermon are televised.

The next day we journeyed east. The villages looked familiar, but there were more brick houses and the fences and yards seemed better kept. We passed a petrol station with small mosques attached and 50 kilometres further on we saw another mosque, this time built amid a cluster of cafés.

From Kazan to Udmurtia, the road was full of Tatar traffic police. They waved their batons cheerfully at every Mercedes they saw and it was difficult to understand what they were most interested in: a chat or extra income. "What Russian is averse to travelling fast?" wrote the great Ukrainian writer Gogol. Well, the Swiss, the French and the Germans are just as partial to it.

Thus, not noticing any signs of Muslim fundamentalism, and lost in thought concerning the raison d'être of the Tatar traffic police, we left Tatarstan behind and entered Udmurtia. The republic was expecting us, and the welcome was warm. The head of the border region's administration was waiting for us with a giant samovar, a pile of Udmurt pies, and a song-and-dance troupe. Amid the snow, on a concrete platform, before a concrete symbol of the new republic, these Russian Udmurtis threw a tea-party-cum-concert for us, their bright costumes warming our spirits as the tea warmed our bodies. The dance troupe wanted us all up dancing and, in the end, even less-than-sociable Joe joined in.

The Russian birch trees that had accompanied us on the trail from Moscow came to an end in Udmurtia. Firs and pines took their place. There were far fewer villages, but the roads were excellent. None the less we came across several lorries, their long trailers lying in the snow-filled ditches beside the road. The many crosses and wreaths along the roadside also warned us to drive with extra care. Russians don't like to observe regulations, and traffic regulations especially, so it is not enough to drive carefully; you have also to be aware of what everyone else is doing and allow those in a hurry to overtake.

Hidden from Brussels

On a hill, roughly a hundred kilometres outside Ekaterinburg, stands a concrete obelisk marking the border between Europe and Asia. It is just as well that they don't know about that obelisk in Brussels. What nightmares the bureaucrats would have if they knew where Europe really ended. Most of Europe, it turns out, has nothing to do with Brussels at all.

Having said that, Ekaterinburg, with its population of just over a million, is a completely European city. The moderate-sized central shopping mall has two mobile-phone shops. It is a rich town effusing calm, in contrast to Moscow, which is a rich town effusing frenzy. Here, in 1918, in the cellar of Ipatiev House, the last tsar and his family were executed by firing squad. A church has been built on the spot and it bears the name "Church on the Blood".

Just outside Ekaterinburg, in the village of Ganina Yama, the Bolsheviks burned the remains of the royal family. Here, for the past six years, a huge monastery has been under construction. It already contains nine churches. Schoolchildren come on excursions and the monks show them the miracle-working icons - one of them belonged to the imperial family but, by some miracle, survived.

The funds to build the monastery were donated by a local metallurgy company. Ekaterinburg has dozens of industrial plants and factories. The local brewery was bought up by Heineken. At the English pub I visited in the evening, more than half the customers were British, German or American, and had nothing to do with our rally. The town is growing and is becoming more expensive.

A circus ring was to be the venue for the ceremony of handing over car keys. The teams picking them up would drive on to Almaty.

Circus elephants performed for us, along with camels, dogs and one clown. I felt strangely ill at ease. It seemed we had been cheated. Our journey had gone without a hitch: no wild bears on the city streets, no Russian bandits trying to hijack our shiny Mercedes on a quiet stretch of road. Everything had been too civilised. That is how I felt that evening, as I tried to decide whether or not to go to bed. I had to leave for the airport at four the next morning to catch the direct flight to Frankfurt. I decided not to go to bed.

But early the following morning, Ekaterinburg's newly extended airport did display a bit of the Russia we had expected. After a long wait while our e-tickets were being printed, we found ourselves in the departure lounge, where the two ladies selling duty-free goods shut up shop in front of us and went off to have coffee. My rally colleagues were outraged and proceeded to reopen the shop themselves, marching in and filling their baskets in the normal way. The shop assistants were forced to return to their posts to serve the queue of international clients who so wanted to take their bottles of Ural vodka back to far-off Europe.

"He must have been a complete idiot to imagine you could take over this country!" said Oliver, sitting back in his airplane seat at last. He was referring to Hitler. "It's totally impossible to control it."

"And nobody does control it," I replied. "It's just held together by the rouble and the dollar."

As I spoke, I remembered the billboard I had seen on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg. The text of the advert was written in Russian and Chinese. Surprised, I asked a passing woman who the Chinese script was for.

"We've got whole streets of Chinese here," she said calmly.

We were between six and seven thousand kilometres from Russia's easternmost borders and about two thousand from Moscow. Our flight was taking us west. Beyond the round windows, the night went on and on. We crossed three time zones that night and, in the morning, awoke in Germany. I understand the logic of time zones a good deal better now. Every large country, be it Russia, China or the United States, lives in its own time zone, its own epoch and according to its own rules. And none of these countries will ever set its clocks to Brussels time. Whether their wealth comes from underground or from the sweat of workers on low wages, they are all self-reliant in their political folly and their economic miracles.

Russia's wealth is underground. There is enough there to last hundreds of years. The important thing is that there should be someone to get the wealth out. There must have been something behind the government's recent call to all Russians living abroad to return to the motherland. In 30 or 40 years there will be no one left to dig, especially where the wealth is greatest, in the Urals and Siberia.