In Russia, dachas take to the roads

April 24, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- A dacha -- the Russian country house, the quintessential weekend escape -- can be as modest as a wooden shack without heat or running water, or as lavish as a villa with meticulously landscaped grounds.

Now, introducing another kind of country house: a dacha on wheels.

The so-called Autodacha -- a camper made in neighboring Belarus that sleeps five and can deliver you far beyond your country estate -- is rolling through the Russian countryside this spring, alongside larger, more luxurious motor homes that dealers hope will become the next big thing in Russian leisure.

Like Siberia's wilderness, the motor home market is largely uncharted territory, and even its most enthusiastic promoters concede that there are sound reasons why it might not grow quickly, including the poor condition of Russian roads and the lack of camping facilities.

Still, a growing number of dealers is renting and selling campers in hopes that they will change how Russians vacation. In addition to the small fleet of Autodachas, the brand of a small Russian-owned company of the same name, motor homes manufactured in Germany are for sale at four Moscow dealerships and in three other Russian cities.

"There's a big future for this kind of travel for people like us," said Sergei Valuyev, 35, a Muscovite who recently returned with four friends from a road trip in an Autodacha through Ukraine and Moldova to a music festival in Bulgaria. "This is preferable to other alternatives if you want to feel comfortable."

Outside Russia's big cities, the "alternatives" often include substandard hotels, if a hotel can be found, or pitching a tent in the woods or at a crude campsite.

Valuyev and his friends had intended to go by car -- it broke down at the last minute -- and to camp along the way. But the motor home was more convenient, he said, enabling them to prepare meals on the small gas stove and, best of all, bathe, even if the shower stall was small.

Russians get at least four weeks of vacation a year in addition to a half-dozen national holidays. The most popular summer destination by far is the dacha; about a quarter of Russians have a cottage for use in the warmer months, about the same percentage that has a car.

During Soviet times, the dacha came to represent a prized space of one's own. Given small plots of land by the state, Russians tended their fruit and vegetable gardens to grow food for their tables. While many newer, elaborate dachas are now a status symbol for the well-to-do, most owners still go to their country homes to tend their gardens.

Russians also have begun turning to Western-style vacations. More Russians are traveling abroad -- 6.7 million in 2005, the government says -- and more are beginning to explore sights at home, from the northern fishing holes of Karelia near the Finnish border to the warm sun of the Black Sea region in the south. Such travelers are potential users of motor homes.

"Russians, even though they like to go abroad, they get tired of Europe and other places," said Autodacha's founder, Igor Kamarov, who hopes that demand this spring and summer will allow him to expand his fleet of campers for rent. "They are becoming more interested in traveling around Russia."

The Autodacha rents for about $100 a day, a considerable sum here. Zakir Mursakulov, general director of Caravan Center, a Moscow-based dealership of German-made Hymer campers, said the Camp Classic model, which sleeps six, costs about $180 per day. Depending on interior decoration and options, which can include GPS and Internet service, the purchase price for the same model is $50,000 to $75,000. Mursakulov said he has sold five campers since December.

The beauty of the camper, of course, is that while other people are fighting traffic to get to their dachas, you're already in yours.

"The main factor of the appeal is curiosity," said Dmitry Sorogin, editor of the magazine Put i Voditel, or "Route and Driver." "For quite a while, people have had only a vague idea of their own country."

But improvements in Russia's infrastructure haven't kept pace. A 1999 survey of Russia's roads published by the U.S. State Department and Department of Commerce said that 43 percent did not meet basic safety standards because of cracks and potholes, and inadequate signs and lighting. Few if any roadside services were available. In 2004, an official at Russia's Transportation Ministry said the lack of a modern highway system cost the economy about 3 percent a year.

That hasn't deterred Oleg Kondratyev, deputy director of a Moscow equipment manufacturer. Though he owns two year-round dachas, he rented an Autodacha for two weeks last summer and headed north with his wife, two sons and nephew to the remote Solovetskiye Islands in the White Sea.

"It's probably the only way that you can get to these unique places. It's wild nature," he said. "It's not even like Finland. There are no hotels, no people. It's really beautiful. It's untouched. Most times, there's no place to stop."

Kondratyev saw foreign tourists using campers. But the Muscovites he met on the road peppered him with questions: Where did he get his Autodacha, how much did it cost, and would he mind if they peeked inside?

It will take time for Russians to get used to the campers.

Grigory Tretyukhin, project manager for Autodacha, concedes that when the company's first camper made its debut in the Russian capital about two years ago, it was something of a spectacle.

"People were gazing at it like it was an elephant walking around," he said. "Of course, when you drive 50 kilometers from Moscow, there's the same reaction."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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