This travel guide covers our overland journey in the eastern part of Russia: from Vladivostok in the east to Novosibirsk in the south, and from Kazakstan/Mongolia in the south to Yakutsk in the north. So please don’t read this as a report on the whole of Russia.
Index for our Russia Travel Guide
- Why Eastern Russia
- Our Traveled Route in Russia
- Russian Language
- Who is Yuri
- Ferry Shipping from South Korea & Customs Clearance
- Vehicle Insurance
- Mobile Service / Sim Card / WiFi
- Roads in Russia’s Far East and Siberia
- Traffic Rules, Border Areas, and Police Checks
- Road Maps & (Guide) books about Russia
- A Word on Ticks
- Additional Travel Information Sources
Make sure to also check out our Russia Budget Report, which shares everything related to budget and other money matters.
1. Why Eastern Russia?
- Eastern Russia (the Far East and Siberia) consists of a mind-blowing wilderness. Our #1 and #2 regions were the coast south of Vladivostok and the east shore of Lake Baikal.
- It is easy to leave the asphalt and hit narrow, unpaved country roads. Do note that it’s hard to make loops; many roads are dead-ends.
- The combination of the wild landscapes with interesting sights to visit in cities, in particular the downtown areas of Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Irkutsk, and countryside (e.g. temples in the Republic of Buryatia).
- We found it easy to meet local people and received much hospitality.
Read More: Where Are We – Lake Baikal
About the Weather
We arrived in Vladivostok on March 19. It was still cold, with a large part of the bays being frozen over. We camped at Lake Baikal on May 15 and even then there were sheets of ice along the shore.
We left Russia for Mongolia in June and returned September 18. The leaves were in their last days of wearing their autumn jacket! October 10 we had our first snow, high up along the Lena River and around Mirny.
This is just to say: summers are short in the east of Russia so prepare accordingly.
On October 22 we had our first serious night frost, -13 C (8,6F) in Tynda. It didn’t stay that cold but around zero (-32F) and snow were common from then on.
Our coldest was Novosibirsk, early December, -40C (-40F).
Ferries and Frozen Rivers
Related to climate:
When arriving in spring or autumn, check whether you can get to Yakutsk or not. Around April/May there is about a month that you can’t drive on the Lena River anymore yet there is still too much ice for the ferry to ply. As a result, Yakutsk is closed off from the east for a couple of weeks. The same is in autumn: around October 15-20 the ferry is no longer plying and you’ll have to wait for the river to be frozen in order to get across.
By the same token, there is a river on your way to Magadan that is unpassable around the same periods of time. We didn’t go there so don’t know the details, but make sure to check it out before you go.
Read More: Sightseeing in Vladivostok
2. Traveled Route in Russia
- Total days traveled in Russia: 180
- October 2017 (5 days)
- March – June 2018 (90 days)
- late September – late December (85 days)
- Average distance covered: 85 kms/day.
3. Russian Language
Russia uses the Cyrillic script which isn’t hard to learn for those who are used to the Latin script. Only a few characters differ. When reading text out loud, you sometimes recognize words, e.g. видео may look complicated but when you read the characters, you realize this is exactly as ‘our’ word for video.
Google Translate has an offline version of its app, be sure to download the Russian offline package. We can hold our smartphone in front of Russian text and it will translate on the spot. When connected to the Internet via WiFi or Data, you can use the instant voice translation in a two-way setup, which works wonderfully.
Our next attempt was the Michel Thomas’ method. We used it in South America to learn Spanish and it worked great and I found out his method is available in a number of languages, among which Russian. It was perfect to listen to and learn while driving those endless roads. We only wish we had known about this earlier. It is a super intuitive way of learning Russian.
4. Who is Yuri?
When you start your Russia journey in Vladivostok, the name of Yuri inevitably comes up. He is the guy who:
- Will get your vehicle off the ferry/container/RoRo and through customs.
- Can help you get your vehicle insurance.
- Will help you buy your first sim card in Russia.
We enjoyed working with him. He answered his emails quickly, all paperwork was ready when we arrived in Vladivostok. We paid $150 for Yuri’s service, which we thought was value for money. Be sure to get in touch with him well before your vehicle arrives.
5. Ferry Crossing & Customs Clearance
We took the DSB ferry from Donghae (South Korea) to Vladivostok. I wrote a separate blog post about all the steps and paperwork involved.
6. Vehicle Insurance
Vehicle insurance is mandatory in Russia. You may have Russia included on your European Green Card, so check that.
We got our insurance with the help of Yuri (see #4). Getting one may take some time, so plan ahead. At the time of arrival (March 2018), Yuri said it was especially a pain in the ass to get insurance for foreign motorcycles so plan even more ahead.
We paid $215 for a one-year insurance (RUB 13500). Yuri paid for us and we paid him back in cash. You can get insurance for a shorter period of time but this is relatively more expensive (quote via Yuri: around $175 for 3 months).
7. Mobile Service / Sim Card / WiFi
Yuri (see #4) helped us buying a sim card for our phone. We had an MTS subscription for which we paid 390 RUB per month (pay more to get more) for 15 GB, 400 SMS and 400 minutes.
We could charge monthly (or for a longer period of time) by using dedicated machines or by going to one of their offices, or even with a credit card in the MTS app (that is, if you are fluent in Russian).
WiFi, on the other hand, wasn’t evident to find – not even in cafés, even though there may be stickers on the door saying they have WiFi. In that respect it was very useful to have a sim card.
8. Roads in Russia’s Far East and Siberia
The main road connecting Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Chita, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk is asphalted. It is in a good/reasonably good state and free of toll roads. In Novosibirsk we didn’t drive farther east but turned south, to Kazakhstan.
Read More: Windshield Views from the Far East
But no worries, off-roading opportunities abound.
1. The coast south and east of Vladivostok
This region is known for its beauty and you’ll understand why most cars here are 4x4s, even the smaller cars have four-wheel traction.
Read More: How to Start an Off-Road Adventure in Russia
2. The east side of Lake Baikal
Part of the road is asphalted but farther north, into the Barguzin Valley, the road becomes unpaved and some of the bridges are broken. Sometimes they have built a way around the bridge; sometimes you need to turn back.
At other places you can cross the river, but note that the sand in Barguzin Valley is very soft. We got stuck with our heavy rig and needed to be pulled out by a tractor.
See Here: Stuck in a River in Barguzin Valley
3. Irkutsk – Ust Kut
There was a mountainous unpaved section between the two towns which at times was tricky because of the bad weather. Lots of mud and potholes.
4. Mirny – Yakutsk
Largely unpaved, varying from asphalted to good laterite-kind of road, to pretty potholed and rutted stretches. There are a couple of river crossings with small (and cheap) ferries plying throughout the day.
5. The side roads
The distances are huge and you do your share of driving without getting off the main roads… But if you like there are stretches throughout the Far East and Siberia where you can get easily off though and drive over unpaved roads into beautiful landscapes with or without lakes. They may take you to some lovely camp spots.
Be prepared for stones flying around on unpaved roads and damaging your windscreen!
9. Traffic Rules, Border Areas, and Police Checks
Important Traffic Rules:
- It’s mandatory to always drive with your lights on.
- Crossing a straight line, e.g. to overtake another vehicle, is a severe offense and may cost you your drivers’ license for three years.
- You’ll find pedestrian crossings all over the place. When somebody is approaching a pedestrian crossing – so even when not on it yet – you are required to stop. Russians take this very seriously (which is great when you are the pedestrian, of course).
We got 1 or 2 police checks that consisted of a short chat and nothing more. Ergo, the police officers were just doing their work.
Border areas are prohibited. The problem is that you don’t know exactly where they run. In the south of Vladivostok, where they took us off the road because of this offense, the officials said the border area was 5 kilometers wide, everywhere. However, in Ulan Ude we learned that the border area north of Mongolia is much wider. So ask before you go.
They take this ridiculously serious. On our road in the far south was a road sign saying (in English) that you need to carry an ID or permit. We had our passports but this turned out to be inadequate. We should have bought a permit as well.
The sign was incorrect, the officials agreed when we protested, but no that did not matter at all. We sat in their office for 4 hours, giving and writing statements including about twenty signatures each and paying a 1000 rubles fine at a bank.
10. Roadmaps & (Guide) books about Russia
MapsMe, 2Gis, and Galileo are our choice for offline navigating our way around.
- In the latest version of MapsMe, it is a delight to see that the Beta option of Latin translation works for the Russian language (contrary to Korean or Japanese).
- However, the huge expanse of the country makes it a bit difficult to find stuff when zooming out with details disappearing too quickly. So in bigger cities we like the routing option of MapsMe.
- This is a Russian application which has detailed, offline maps of all the big cities in Russia as well as a few big cities abroad (e.g. where Russians likely to go vacationing).
- Although the app is in Russian, you will understand what the idea is and icons go a long way. A benefit is that if local people want to help you out, they can search and address or location in Russian in this app (note, it is handy to have Russian Keyboard on your smartphone installed).
- What we liked is the super handy, actual-traffic density option that shows traffic jams and slower-moving traffic by coloring the streets and indicating the overall traffic congestion with a large number in the upper right-hand corner (note, you have to be online for the traffic feature). MapsMe is trying something similar, but probably because not many people are using it here, this isn’t working at all in Russia.
- Galileo had disappeared from our phone since we first started experimenting and beta testing it in 2012. It appeared on our radar recently when they too offered offline routing. But that is not its greatest feature.
- The gem is the fact that you can add your own offline maps. Although it is not easy to accomplish that, it is by no means impossible. We have Russian Military maps installed and are testing with some contour, hill-shaded sat maps. So far it has not resulted in the optimal solution, which would be vector-based maps with contours and maybe hill-shading. If you know where to access them, please let us know.
- Apart from that, the base-installed OSM vector map shows nice detail when zoomed out (this is where it outshines MapsMe) and instead of routing there is the option of showing a bearing line that indicates the general direction to travel instead of turn-by-turn navigation where you lose any sense of control. This way it is more like our first old-school Garmin-eTreks with just a line on a very detailed terrain. You are free to choose which roads or direction you want to travel.
Paper Roadmaps for Russia
We have used Reise Know-How Roadmaps, which has a number of them for Russia.
- Russia East 1: 2000 000 Travel Map
- Russia West 1:200 0000 Travel Map
- Lake Baikal (Siberia, Russia) 1:550,000 Travel Map
- Silk Road 1:2,000,000 Travel Map
We’ve been pleased with our guidebooks on Russia:
- Insight Guides Russia, which is attractive with all its photos and has maps with numbers corresponding with the sights. This makes it easy to find information.
- The Lonely Planet Russia, which has a lot of info we don’t use (e.g. where to sleep and public transport), but which has a wealth of information about Russia in general and great tips on sightseeing.
Read More: Books about Russia
11. A Word on Ticks
Ticks are a problem in Russia, in particular in the east. They may carry Lyme or Encephalitis. We both got bitten by one when camping near Lake Baikal. I am no medic, and please do your own research on the subject, but to give you an idea, this is what they told us about tick bites here:
- When the tick has just bitten, it may have transmitted Encephalitis. You can get vaccinated for this before your trip, or when bitten, you can get pills over the counter in a pharmacy. About 500 roubles.
- It’s unlikely it has transmitted Lyme unless the tick has been on your body for at least 24 hours. Watch out for a red ring on your skin, which appears in the days/weeks after the bite. It is an indication you may have Lyme and you need to visit a doctor asap.
- If you get the tick off your body, keep it in a ziplock (preferably on a wet cotton swab to keep it alive). Take it to a lab yourself or, in our case, the doctor in Ush Barguzin (near Lake Baikal) took care of that.
- If you need help to get the tick off, go to a doctor/hospital. It’s important to take it off in one piece.
12. Additional Travel Information Sources
- The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
- WikiOverland, help expand the special Wiki Overland pages.
- iOverlander is the place where overlanders share GPS waypoints on many things, among which camping spots.
- Overlanding Facebook groups among which Overland to Asia.
- About Russia: Facebook groups such as Russia Beyond and Discover Russia.
- Don’t forget to check out our Russia Budget Report, our Russia Accommodation & Camping overview, and other Russia blog posts.
Read More: Overlanding in a Siberian Winter
Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?
We hope you find this Russia Travel Guide useful. Is there anything you missed? Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comment section below and we’ll answer it asap!
Originally published in August 2018 / updated January 2019.
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