The romance of the longest road


Russia: Despite a few unsettling changes, those who live in their country's remote Far East welcome the coming of the Trans-Siberian Highway and an end to their deep sense of isolation.

August 26, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BIRA, Russia - Trucker Roman Naganyak dreams of the day when he can drive his tractor-trailer loaded with Japanese electronics the nearly 5,500 miles from the forests of this remote corner of Asiatic Russia to the broad boulevards of Moscow.

The journey west from the hamlet of Bira would take him across seven time zones, through permafrost taiga and seemingly endless forests. But Naganyak, seduced by Hollywood films romanticizing the lives of American long-haul truckers, is looking forward to the journey "with great pleasure."

"I want to see Russia," says the sandy-haired, 29-year-old, flashing his gold-capped front teeth.

The romance of the road is something new here. Until recent decades, this quarter of the world had no roads at all. For centuries, travelers stumbled through thick birch and larch forests of the taiga or sledded in winter along frozen rivers.

Rapid change

Not until the early 20th century did the czars complete the Trans-Siberian Railroad, linking the empire's Asian lands to European Russia. Not until about two years ago was it possible for even four-wheel-drive vehicles to penetrate this far from the west. Neither did any road connect the swamps and fields and forests here with Russia's Pacific coast capital of Vladivostok.

That is rapidly changing.

Two years ago, bulldozers completed work on a rough dirt and gravel highway connecting this village of dachas, melon fields and a single gas station with the Baltic Sea and the Pacific.

Workers finally bridged the gap between Chita, north of the Mongolian border 1,200 miles west of here, and Khabarovsk, a city on the Chinese border about 100 miles to the east.

The Soviet Union's Council of Ministers proposed a highway across the area in 1966, but the government dawdled, daunted by the horrendous cost of building through the taiga, over permafrost that heaves and shifts the ground beneath.

Construction finally began in 1978. After 17 years, only 360 miles of the 1,300-mile, Chita-to-Khabarovsk section had been built, mostly around rather than between isolated cities.

After his election as president in 2000, Vladimir V. Putin made the Trans-Siberian Highway a priority, and the work accelerated.

Just before the presidential elections in March, Putin came to Khabarovsk to cut a ribbon on a new bridge over the Amur River and officially open the Moscow-Vladivostok Federal Road.

"This has been the second-most important event after the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway," he said.

`Forget about asphalt'

Despite the pomp, the Russian highway remains unfinished. Drivers say there are hundreds of miles of dirt and gravel, including boulder-strewn stretches more suitable for tractors than cars. Heavy trucks like Naganyak's are out of the question.

"Forget about asphalt," advises Shustrik, a Russian motorcyclist, on a Web page dedicated to adventurous bikers planning to ride the Trans-Siberian.

"The road condition change[s] from beautiful gravel motorway down to bad mud, you will find breathtaking river crossing[s] and some more adventures," writes a motorcyclist from Germany who calls himself JoeDakar.

None of which fazes Russians, notoriously intrepid motorists. Drivers here like to brag, with justification, that they don't need roads, only directions.

Sergei A. Yevtushenko, first deputy mayor in Tynda, an isolated railroad town built on the permafrost of the Amur Region, packed his family in his Volga sedan and took off down the highway in July.

The Yevtushenkos bumped over the Trans-Siberian's unpaved stretches, stopped for two nights at a tourist campsite near Lake Baikal and wound up - nine long days and maybe 5,000 miles later - on the shores of the Black Sea.

"We were in no hurry," he says as though describing a weekend trip from Baltimore to Ocean City.

The whole of the Moscow-Vladivostok highway is a staggering 6,200 miles long, the world's longest in a single country. It easily eclipses the previous record-holder, the 4,860-mile Trans-Canada Highway. And the United States' storied Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles? A scant 2,400 miles in length.

A major impact

When the Moscow-Vladivostok Federal Road is finally fully blacktopped and open to heavy traffic in 2008, it will extend Europe's modern road network into Eastern Asia.

The impact should be dramatic. The highway will enable big trucks to haul goods in and out of the region, slashing the cost of doing business here. It should attract tourists, industry and perhaps even residents to this sparsely populated region, which has seen a drop in population since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The road could also reduce concerns that one day this part of Russia might someday be grabbed by China, with its burgeoning population and rapidly expanding economy.

In isolated places, the road already has brought unsettling changes. Hunters grumble about the sudden appearance of game wardens. Merchants complain about visits from tax inspectors.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.