Almaty Herold

Bumps along the way on Russia's open road
It could be this summer's ultimate road trip: driving from the Baltic to the Pacific.


Just before Russia's elections in March, President Viadimir V. Putin inaugurated a 1,345-mile link in a trans-Russia highway that starts in St.Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland, and ends 6,600 miles later in Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.

"Russia built the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903, and now, some 100 years later, this highway was built", he said, standing in the snows of Khabarovsk, the eastern end of the once missing link across eastern Siberia.

Running over permafrost and through virgin taiga forest, the new federal road is almost three times as long as the fabled Route 66, and it dethrones the 4,860-mile Trans-Canada Highway, which for decades was the world's longest national highway.

But before American motorheads grab their international driver's licenses and start planning the drive, they should remember that Mr. Putin inaugurated the road when it was nicely concealed beneath packed snow.

"In some sections there is no road, just a roadbed graded by bulldozers, with trees knocked down everywhere", Gennadi Kulaev, a 42-year-old business-man, said by telephone."You can hardly get through". In mid-March, he said, he wrestled a Toyota Land Cruiser from Vladivostok to his home in Ulan-Ude, trip of about 2,150 miles. Referring to one segment of about 450 miles, he said: "There is 700 kilometers of no road. There is no other word to call it - goat tracks.

"At some places, it was blocked by rocks from the mountains detonated by dynamite. So drivers had to hire bulldozers working nearby, or just crawl atop those rock piles as I did".

At the inauguration ceremony, one highway official assured the president that he had driven the new section at an average speed of 53 miles an hour. Later, highway officials admitted that only a quarter of the new section, called the Amur Link, is paved, and that it will take five years to finish it.

"There are paved sections, sometimes near settlements, sometimes just a piece of asphalt in the middle of nowhere", Mr. Kulaev said.

Like the Trans-Canada Highway and the Trans-Amazonica in Brazil, Russia's cross-continental road is a nation-building exercise. The road's Asia section, which spans seven time zones, is designed to plant Russia's flag more firmly along its long border with China. Siberia makes up three-quarters of Russia's territory, but has only a fifth of its paved roads.

After the inauguration of the new link, which has more than 250 bridges, the first truck convoy drove west from Khabarovsk bearing signs reading "There is a road, there is life, there is Russia."

Construction on the highway, planned in 1966, began in 1978, at the rate of only two miles a month. A few years ago, Mr. Putin latched on to the struggling project. Last year, a quarter of all oft he national government's road-building money went into the trans-Russia highway. It has been financed partly by a large low-interest loan from the European Union.

Already, the road is getting baleful glares from some Russians who believe that the only way to traverse steppe and taiga is on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Vladimir A. Krapivnyi, chief railroad engineer for Russia's Far East, said: "If I need to drive more than five hours, I prefer the train. It's faster, cheaper and safer".

Noting that the Trans-Siberian can cross Russia at 95 miles an hour, moving day and night, he said the trip from Vladivostok to Moscow took about a week. He added with disdain, "By car it will take 25 days."

And don't expect to find gas stations, restaurants and road-side motels in Siberia. Drivers pack food and gasoline, and keep their tire irons handy for unwanted night visitors.

Between the Siberian cities, "there is nothing, just nothing," said Alex M. Petrollini, a Canadian who manages a motel on the road leading north from Vladivostok.

But even with the potholes, tree stumps and layers of mud atop permafrost, local officials along the route consider the road the end of the railroad's century-long monopoly.

"Along the road, new villages, small towns will emerge to exploit the road, to repair the road, to seil goods, to offer hotels, and so on," said Viadimir V. Kuchuk, international adviser to the Khabarovsk government.

To promote the new road, a Vladivostok travel agency, Terra Tour, and a local car dealership,, dropped the checkered flag May 15 on 19 cars participating in a 12,420-mile rally from Vladivostok to Moscow and back. Competing for a purse of more than $17,000, 13 drivers completed the trip, which ended June 13.

By the end of this decade, it is projected that there will be 8 cars for every 10 Russian families; about half of Russian families have cars now, the government says. Residents of the Russian Far East sense that soon they will feel the call of the open highway.

"You can't just put a label on it, and call it a road", said Sergei Rudenko, a Khabarovsk taxi driver. "But they promise to pave it by 2008. Then I will go to Baikal for a summer vacation. Two thousand kilometers should be nothing".

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