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It's a Long Drive From London to Moscow in a Family Van

March 22, 1987|ROBIN CHARTERIS | Charteris works for the New Zealand Associated Press in London.

LONDON — More than two hours after reaching the Soviet border post at Torfyanovka, a mile or two across no man's land from Finland, we began to wonder--and not for the first time--if it had been a good idea to take a family motor home holiday in Russia.

The five armed guards unscrewing panels and boring holes in the floor of our Bedford motor home were surly and suspicious, not even joking among themselves, let alone acknowledging me in friendly fashion.

They made me stand outside by the van while my wife Judi and the three teen-agers with us--Kim and David (both 18) and Matthew (14)--were kept inside the guardhouse, not permitted to talk with me.

An apparent gap between the floor and underbody of the van was of great interest to the soldiers. So were the contents of every cupboard and drawer, even the inside of the vehicle's air cleaner. The rear panel of the refrigerator came off, grocery parcels were unwrapped, the portable toilet was scrutinized.

Skipping the Personal

It was a thorough search, yet by accident or design the plastic bags with our personal belongings taken into the guardhouse had been passed without inspection.

Only two cars had been in front of us when we approached the border. Both had long gone after much shorter searches than ours, but then a large mobile home presumably offers many more potential hiding places.

And as we were to discover during the next fortnight while driving across Russia into Moscow and out to Poland, motor homes are rare in the Soviet Union. We met no more than four in Russia, all with West German license plates, and fewer than a dozen Western automobiles.

Several other curious guards sauntered over to our vehicle for a look. One showed a little humor, at least. He asked me to open the tool box, pointing to his pistol and indicating that there might be another inside the box, smiling as he did so.

Abruptly, just as we were wondering if we could make our overnight stop of Leningrad 150 miles distant by nightfall, the guards indicated that we could go.

Around the Bend

So anxious were we to get away that I stalled the van, twice. Later, as we stopped around the bend for a cup of tea, we laughed, excitedly and nervously. Stage one of our mission was over; we were inside the Soviet Union at last.

Our 5,000-mile round trip from London required rather more planning than a casual continental tour. Lifting a corner of the Iron Curtain for a private and unescorted glimpse of communism at work is not the norm.

More than 95% of Westerners entering the U.S.S.R. on holiday do so on official Intourist-sanctioned group excursions. Individual visits are rare, made difficult by regulation and red tape, although not officially discouraged.

Kilometers Count

Intourist, the Soviet travel organization, told us we had to stay overnight on official camping grounds, could travel only on approved roads and not cover more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) in any one day. From Novgorod to Moscow is 503 kilometers. Could we drive it in one day, please? Nyet, said their London office, it is three kilometers too many--break the journey at Kalinin.

Visas and vehicle authority eventually followed. Vehicle insurance could be arranged at the border, we learned, but how comprehensive it would be, no one knew.

The British Automobile Assn., whose excellent Five Star insurance does not cover beyond Western Europe, could not suggest a British-based company. After numerous telephone calls we found one--Black Sea and Baltic General Insurance Co.--that would cover us behind the Iron Curtain for less than $90 U.S. for two weeks.

Intourist in London said we would be given road maps and petrol vouchers at the border crossing, but it was at Vyborg, about 45 miles into Russia, that they became available. A Cub Scout would have turned up his nose at the map. Entitled "Scheme of Automobile Tours," it was a cartoon version that showed a single red line bisecting a green countryside on a scale of six inches to 600 miles.

Plague of Potholes

Among all else the map did not show was the condition of the red-ribbon highway. Nothing encountered before on back-country roads around the world had prepared us for the channels of corrugations and plague of potholes.

Rippling and bouncing away in front of us for mile after long mile, they played such havoc with the motor home's suspension that both front shock absorbers were ruined in the first hour. From then on, 30 m.p.h. became our maximum speed for safety and comfort.

An intriguing facility we made use of at most rest areas beside the highway were the concrete or steel ramps over shallow pits that allow vehicles to be inspected from beneath. They were invariably in use.

Ladas Pass the Test

The large number of private vehicles on the roads was a revelation. Soviet-made Ladas, almost to a one, had seat covers and radios, even cassette players. By the speeds at which they whizzed past, they could obviously handle the rough roads very well.

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