September 11, 2004 GMT
Oh all right then, I'll go to St. Petersburg instead

Road signs are a nearly-extinct species in Latvia. Those that do exist are a) very small, and b) only at the turning. They therefore actually mean "Go 10 km up the road to find somewhere safe to do a U and come back again, you dopey cow".

There is a certain amount of disconnection between maps and reality, as well. Having successfully escaped from the centre of Riga on to the ring road (also involving a U as the slip road on to the ring road in the correct direction was closed) I duly found the exit for Ogre (being the first town on the road to Moscow). According to tthe map this should have been the A6, but was in fact the P-5. After 17km of reasonable going to Ogre (charming little place) the road deteriorated to what can only be described (as it rightly was) as a P-class road. A
dirt track with horrible adverse cambers and mad locals slithering round the bends at silly speeds.

After a few km it was no better, and there was no indication that any improvement would appear in the 200km to the border (if indeed the border crossing is actually open on that road).

Back to the ring road (not-bad single carriageway with very few road signs) and turned north towards Tallinn to take the A2 north-east. This road takes in 20km of Estonia before entering Russia on the road to St.Petersburg. At both the Estonian borders the guards demanded my V5 and checked engine and frame numbers. I suspect therefore that this route is used to take stolen vehicles out of the EU into Russia.

We read some of the horror stories about land crossings into Russia, so it was with trepidation I rode the hundred yards away from the EU.

At the gate into Russia my worst fears were confirmed. The light turned red and the gate closed. Ah. Then the resident roadmenders began to resurface a 2m strip across the road just inside the gate. We in the queue relaxed, lit ciggies and tried to look as though we had all day (the only way to behave at a border). To be fair, the men only took about 20 minutes.

The light turned green and gate opened. the 'first man' (who checks you have appropriate papers) was a woman, and when satisfied sent me over to the various glass windows one has to visit on such occasions.

The entire complement of border officials yesterday consisted of rather jolly ladies of around my age. They filled in all the forms for me so all I had to do was sign them. They wanted to know all about the trip. My destination was a bit vague, so the border chief (a large lady in civvies) was consulted. She decided we should put Japan as my destination. Insurance and road tax was 20 quid (dispensed by an avuncular gentleman who wanted to know all about the bike). The customs inspection, performed by a friendly blonde bombshell, consisted of a quick look at the tent in one pannier and my clothes bag in the topbox. Nothing about money, GPSs or anything (all of which I'd hidden inside the bike itself before leaving Riga). And all the time they were practising their English and German on me. It practically became a coffee morning, and the chaps behind me in the queue looked
increasingly worried - I don't think they'd witnessed anything quite like it before.

I've crossed a few borders in my time but this one has to be the most enjoyable (and surreal) ever.

So off I went rejoicing into the largest country on earth.

The Russians are very good at the headlight-flash-warning-of-speed-trap, but I still got caught bang to rights - 87 in a 60 (I genuinely thought it was a 90). So I did my mad Englishwoman act (it worked in America) and had my wrist smacked by a very nice young traffic cop and sent on my way.

So here I am, 2500 miles and 3 time zones from home. I have just one day here (have to go to Moscow tomorrow) but I've been here a couple of times before and spent days in the Hermitage and seeing all the other wonderful sights in this city so I shan't feel guilty about not doing the tourist thing too much today. Anyway, I'm a bit tired after yesterday's ups and downs (430 miles doesn't sound much, but this isn't western Europe) and need to chill out a bit.

More from Moscow on Monday - a good 500 miles from here, and although the roads are called M10, M20 and so on the Russians have a different definition of motorway. 65mph or so is as fast as you want to go, and you need eyes in the back of your head. Good surfaces are good, the rest goes from reasonable to suspension-testing. And what's a dual carriageway? There's also the boredom factor. The roads are dead straight for miles with forest either side - a foretaste of the taiga through Siberia and more reason to duck out and take a train for the
3000km stretch between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at September 11, 2004 03:59 PM GMT

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