The rules of the road in Russia are difficult to determine. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are utterly nonexistent. I embarked on a weekend away to Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city and capital of Siberia. Izzi and I were driven there by the delightful Pleshakova sisters, who will hopefully feature heavily in my Tomsk experience. Incidentally, Tomsk is the 32nd biggest city; I know some of you were wondering. Anyway, a complete lack of road safety and no rules is what I'm claiming to have experienced. You may think I am exaggerating somewhat; surely there must be some rules? Well, here are five rules that you might expect road users to adhere to, but quite simply, they don't:
1. In Russia, you drive on the right.
Yes. Well, not always. Rather alarmingly, on motorways, this 'guideline' seems to have been forgotten. The problem is that often the motorway is just a bog-standard road, your average single carriageway. As a result of this, the only way to overtake is to venture onto the other side of the road, something you might occasionally do in England, but not as a prerequisite for every single journey you make. Diving, darting and weaving are commonplace, with cars, buses and lorries all getting involved in the action, on corners, hills, everywhere. I found myself reminiscing about those wonderful "hidden dips!" signs we have at home... To be fair, there were 'no overtaking' signs on the road, but these are quite religiously ignored, exemplified by a one car overtaking a police car, next to one of these signs. The mind boggles... I genuinely believe that some drivers spend more time on the left hand side of the road, such is their addiction to absolute mayhem. And we did witness some carnage, the aftermath of a crash, presumably caused by one of these outrageous manoeuvres. Several cars were involved, one of which was fairly smashed up. It's safe to say that the atmosphere in our little Fiat Picanto became noticeably tenser...
2. Pedestrians are not allowed on motorways.
After my expedition to Novosibirsk, I can confirm that this is not true. Pedestrians can often be seen on the roadside, from hitchhikers to old ladies, selling baked goods. But the authorities even encourage this behaviour. The road briefly widened to a dual carriageway, which I assumed was to allow for overtaking and, as a result, greater speeds. But instead, a cafe appeared on one side and a toilet on the other, connected by a zebra crossing! Inside the cafe were the smells of meat soup and пирожки - pirozhki (pasty-type snacks), accompanied by the sound of screeching brakes and tyres as burly Russian truck drivers marched obstinately over the road. Strangely, stopping at zebra crossings seems to be the only thing that every driver does. I also nipped into the toilet, paying the 10 rouble surcharge (20p), only to be greeted by a hole in the ground. I can't decide whether I was more amused at paying 10 roubles to use a hole in the ground or at the fact that there were fully-functioning, electric hand-dryers but no locks or loo seats. On the bright side, it must have been worse for the girls.
3. The car on the roundabout has the right of way.
Now this one is a real brain-tickler. In Tomsk, the roundabouts are fairly orderly, working in much the same way as they do in the rest of the world: you wait until there's a space and then make your move. However, all of that changes when you arrive in Novosibirsk. For some bizarre reason, in Novosibirsk, the cars on the roundabout have to wait. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. Miraculously, we weren't hit, but it was a close run thing. This happened about 2 days ago, and ever since I have been trying to work out what part of this is a good idea. Firstly, I would have thought that cars could pile up on the roundabout if they can't get off. Secondly, and more importantly, WHY does the rule change between cities?!? It is absolute nonsense.
4. Lights must be switched on at night.
Whether or not this is a rule, it falls under the common sense section of road safety, along with "look where you're going" and "open your eyes". Of course, at night you may as well do neither of the above if you're not even going to switch the lights on. But there was a bloke driving a rusty, old tractor (yes they're allowed on motorways too) without lights, but with a rather large trailer. I saw him as we went past and am glad that he was on the other side of the road...
5. Driving through roadworks is not permitted.
This is a bit of a strange one. Normally with roadworks, there's a diversion and signs for the drivers. Here, the road was closed for repairs, but instead of a nice diversion, there was the option of driving around the roadworks on a temporary road surface of stones and grass, before rejoining a few hundred metres later. Our vehicle wasn't built for 4x4 driving, but just about managed. In Russia, there's always a way. It's refreshing to know that just because the road has gone, it doesn't mean people will give up. They just get on with it.
Whatever the rule, Russians have a canny knack of getting around it. You have to admire their boldness, but as a cautious Brit, these things can be difficult to come to terms with. At least I know to be careful with the roads. Put it this way, I won't go and sit on the motorway with a 'no overtaking' sign any time soon...