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Driving the King's Road

The change in feeling is immediate. The pavement is choppier, the chill heavier, and the shoulder of the M10 is covered on both sides with cups, bags, and other human detritus. It would be hard to find a discarded cigarette butt in Finland, a country so law-abiding that if you cross against a Don't Walk sign you're obviously a tourist.

We have been warned (repeatedly) to watch out for the omnipresent traffic police, known to harass foreigners and relieve them of hefty fines. They are not, however, particularly successful at thwarting Russia's diesel-spewing army of trucks and Ladas, which are all happy to pass us at virtually every opportunity—around turns, with other vehicles barreling toward them, and in one case even on the dirt shoulder.

After less than an hour of bobbing, weaving, honking, and praying, I have fully assimilated myself into this byzantine blood sport, realizing that if I don't play it myself, it'll take us 10 hours to cover the 155 miles to St. Petersburg. In Finland, the roads are so smooth you could cruise in a car made of porcelain; Russian highways only occasionally have sections of smooth pavement, and for the first time I feel justified in having chosen a Land Rover for the trip. Though not the best car for drafting behind the Mercedeses with blacked-out windows that frequently kick dust in my face, the Land Rover swallows up the shoddy Russian road.

The route is dead straight on this side of the border, as the landscape transitions from thick pine and birch forests to fields that lie fallow. Like a river of blacktop, the M10 forms the main street of town after town of once beautiful, now teetering wooden peasant homes. Along the roadside, women in babushkas—revelation: it's not a myth—sell pickled beets and potatoes, pots of steaming coffee, folk dolls, and, bizarrely, beach towels, which they hang from rickety lean-tos.

Outside St. Petersburg, magnificent old dachas tilt and threaten to collapse. Wires illegally tapped into electric lines run across the road and into shanties. These conditions persist right up to the town border, where apartment buildings begin to appear and line the road until the Old City unveils itself.

Czar Peter the Great's bold experiment has held up surprisingly well. Two years ago, St. Petersburg celebrated its 300th birthday, and President Putin spared no expense to brush the grime off of this architectural marvel. Most of the city's more than 1,000 palaces received fresh coats of (primarily yellow) paint, and the polished golden spires of Peter and Paul's fortress in the Neva River glimmer, even in the gray light that makes you feel as if it were perpetually late afternoon.

By five, we've checked into the Hotel Astoria and are preparing, in honor of the road, to eat like kings at the Grand Hotel Europe's Caviar Bar, a sedate room with flawless food and a lounge singer who has already grown tiresome before we have finished our first plate of beluga—a problem easily resolved by stepping up the consumption of Russian Standard Vodka.

And then we sleep like kings.

If you want to get technical, the King's Road actually ends in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great's "window on Europe" and the seat of power from which succeeding czars ruled over Finland. But since the Russians haven't bothered to get aboard the King's Road Tour Train, I have decided to forge my own modern extension, and push on some 400 miles, to Moscow, with a stopover in Tver, where Catherine the Great used to rest while making the same trip.

Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow to add precious distance from Germany, a tactic that proved prescient. After turning on Stalin, Hitler and his war machine got bogged down in the brutal winter some 19 miles outside of the relocated capital, across from what is today a BP Connect filling station and mini-mart. The Soviets erected a monolith of a memorial there, thrusting up at the gray sky, surrounded by gray walls decorated with the face of a defiant Russian soldier and the dates 1941-1945, known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War.

Past the memorial, a number of old Soviet suburbs line the road. Huge blocks of concrete adorned with story upon story of tiny porches covered in hanging laundry. Beyond those, the road widens. Another BP, a Shell station, then a massive—and massively ugly—sportsplex that appears to have been designed by a drunken set decorator from Lost in Space. Then the road improves, the building density thickens, and Western stores begin to appear on both sides of the road, their names transliterated into Cyrillic.

Finally, ahead, the red spires and brick walls of the Kremlin—more magnificent than I'd imagined them. According to the maps, our destination, the Hotel National, should be here, at the foot of Tverskaya, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls. We have come this far without speaking Russian, and to miss the hotel, in the center of this huge, sprawling mass of foreign energy, bustling with traffic and traffic police, would be, well...but that's beside the point—we miss it. Caught in a swell of taxis and buses, we push left, and I can come up with only one plan. "All right, my friend," I say. "We're going to have to circumnavigate the Kremlin."

Jason laughs. "That has to be the first time anyone's ever said those words."

We circumnavigate well enough until the Kremlin walls lead us to the Moscow River, which we must cross, and then things get sticky. I make a wrong turn, then panic and pull a U-turn. Bad idea.

We've made it all the way to Moscow without being stopped, passing at least 50 checkpoints and numerous speed traps, and now I see blue lights in the rearview mirror. I've already been warned to not sit in the car and wait to be approached. Russian cops see it as a sign of respect if you get out and come to them, so I open the door and hop into the Lada, handing over my paperwork. "My English," he says. "Very bad." "My Russian," I answer back. "Terrible." Stymied and frustrated, he hands back my papers and waves his hand. "Go."

And then I know we are going to make it. Outside the majestic Hotel National, just a few hundred yards from the gates into Red Square, a bellman moves aside a rope and points our truck, filthy from dirty roads and diesel fumes, to a prime spot just feet from the hotel's door.

We planned to hop right back in the Land Rover the following morning and begin the two-day return trip, but as we contemplate the hotel bar's rows of fine vodkas, with the twinkling Kremlin behind us and a meal of caviar and blini ahead of us, the thought of more cops, more whizzing Ladas, more swerving trucks is all too much to bear. Plus, this is Moscow, so long a forbidden fruit...

"You are here for just one night?" the smiling desk clerk asks us. Like so many Russian women, she has the chiseled face of a model.

"How far to the border?" I ask Jason, knowing the answer.

"685 miles or so," he says, catching on.

"We can do it in a day," I say.

I look up at the clerk. "Make that two nights."

JOSH DEAN has written for Men's Journal and Rolling Stone.

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