In Borderland

Russia is the land of the Lada. Not only the land of vodka, bureaucracy or gray concrete, but also the land of the small and handy car that for me always has been a symbol of the former Soviet states. I had forgotten about the Lada when I imagined Russia as a country with concrete buildings, tired vodka-drinking people and an enormous bureaucray. This is also Russia, but Russia is until now something else and something more. It is nicotine-addicted transport inspectors, customs officers that laughs when they look inside our bus, it is silent shop attendents, humpy roads, old, worn wooden houses with fantastic wood-carvings. It is sunshine and nice people, old trucks and charming truckstations with smelling toilets. It is a welcoming Russia that so far hasn't lived up to its bad reputation, and knock on wood, it won't either.
At the moment we are driving on a humpy road between Petrozavodsk and Vologda. This is not the only bad road we have experienced since we just about managed to get into Russia - in the excitement of crossing the border to Russia we forgot a very important thing; map reading, and as a result we followed the wrong signs to Murmansk. A journey that would normally take us 3 hours, ended up taking 7 hours and a night's sleep from us. The distance was the same in kilometres, but when you are driving only 5 km per hour on a road that more resembles a dry river, than an actual road, it is quite obvious that it takes a few hours longer. But, hey, someone told us that the roads were supposed to be quite bad in Russia. What have we learnt? There is always a co-pilot and map-reader sitting next to the driver. And never trust a road sign.
Even though the road quality doesn't resemble a dry river anymore, the roads are still a challenge and the bus is constantly changing between 20 to 80 km/h.
Crossing the border is a long story and now, a week later, it seems more like a Russia-test than how it actually felt during the five long hours waiting at the border between our safe home country Norway and the big, scary Russia: if you pass the test - if you are patient, humble and stubborn you are welcome to Russia, if not, this is not a country for you. But we passed the test in the end. Russia is a country for us.
We arrived late afternoon at the border, a bit nervous and excited about what expected us. It was now our big trip was about to begin for real. It was now we were going to meet a Russia few of us knew, but all of us had heard and read many stories about. Would the customs spend hours checking our bus, or would there be a different kind of problem ahead? Would there be any problems at all? The one we feared the most, the customs, didn't turn out to be our problem this time.
After a young man with an enormous hat let us into the Russian border station, we were guided to a room were they stamped our visas. Since Guro Anna is registred as the owner of the bus, she is also the person who has to take care of all the practical matters with the papers for the bus. She was about to learn that we were in "BIG troubles" as the transport inspector expressed in broken Russian-English. In Russia you are not allowed to drive with more than 8 passengeres if you are driving as a private person in transit, meaning that you are not returning to the same border as you started out. With our 12 seats in the bus, we were, as the transport inspector indicated, in trouble. We were already registred in the system as a "big bus", and we had already gotten our migration papers. We needed a transit paper, but it would take weeks to get, and our whole trip were on hold. Neither Guro Anna's tears or Pasvikturist (who had helped us with our Russian visas) begging on the phone, helped. The fear of the, for us, invisible boss, were too big. The transport inspector was afraid he might loose his job if he let us go. He suggested that we came back the next day when he wasn't on duty with three seats less in the bus, but our visas were all single entry visas, and they were already registred. Getting new ones would take days, and we were in a hurry. Being in a hurry is by the way another problem we hadn't predicted, but more about this later.
Sad, dissapointed and confused after 4 hours of waiting we were sent back to the bus and asked to leave. We had at this stage started to plan an alternative route not including Russia, but it also meant applying for new, expensive visas and no Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We had tried everything; could they maybe annulate our entry stamp? Could they delete us from the system? Could they pretend that they didn't know that we were driving through Russia to Kazakhstan? Soon the whole border station was involved in our problem, but they didn't seem to be able to help us, even though the transport inspector actually looked sad as he smoked heavier and heavier. During these 4 hours Guro Anna had gone from being "Miss Wyller", to being "Anna" and at the end "Guro Anna". A kind of personal bond had envolved.
Of course we had to get a fine before we left; one fine for being rejected and one fine for not having a N for Norway at the back of the bus. Guro Anna was on her way to pay when the transport inspector pulled her aside, lit a cigarette and said "Okay, you go to Russia now" and pointed towards Norway (he meant to point towards Russia, of course). In the joy of the moment Guro Anna claimed "I love you!" This must be the biggest declaration of love he has ever experienced in his working days. The transport inspector had after a while realised that he could delete from the register that we were driving transit, and instead write that we were going to Murmansk - any problems that might occur because of this, we would have to handle on the border to Kazakhstan. He would not be the person responsible anymore.
The border was about to close (Russian time) and we were now facing our original fear: the custom. Each one of us had to take all our personal belongings and get it scanned - meaning, not more than 35 kg, otherwise we would have to pay duty. It is likely that we have approximately a tonn of things in the bus, including personal belongings, technical equipment, food and kitchen. Only two people managed to get their things scanned before a somewhat frustrated customs officer came towards the bus with waving arms demanding us to stop. They had seen enough and it was closing time. Two customs officers took a quick look inside our bus while laughing and smiling, they even called for the woman who had stamped our passports and gave her a short sight-seeing.
We had now been in the borderland for five hours; a land of stern people, problems and enormous hats, but also our first meeting with a Russia that smiles and laughs in the end. At last we were allowed to cross the magical border to Russia.