Russia intimidates some travellers, but it’s filled with friendly people, hearty meals and beautifully empty landscapes—the perfect inspiration for daring hitchhikers.
Story and Photos by Khaled Kheir
On a summer night in Samara, Russia, in 2012, I met a French girl in a Couchsurfing meeting. She kept speaking for a long time about hitchhiking alone in Russia and across Europe, and after we left, she left a great impression on me.
I was young, only 20 then, and I came from a country where people even don’t understand or know about hitchhiking—Alexandria, Egypt, is my hometown—but nevertheless, it became my dream to hitchhike all the way to Siberia’s Lake Baikal over central Mongolia, and then back to Crimea on the Black Sea. It never occurred to me that this dream could come true after only three years.
After that first trip to Russia in 2012, I decided to only return when I felt comfortable enough speaking Russian to enjoy this country and listen to what people have to say. I was studying mechanical engineering, so I could only travel in the summer, which I did every year. Coming from the Mediterranean coast and not far away from the desert, Siberia’s beautiful nature and forests were always something I felt I needed to discover by myself.
Lake Baikal, which was my main destination, is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and also the deepest and oldest at than 25 million years. The flora there is amazing, and there are many species that can’t be found in any other place like the Baikal seal which is the only fresh water seal in the world. So, the more I kept reading about the lake, the more my dream became an actual plan, especially because I was also very interested to meet the Siberian shamans who live around the lake.
After travelling around for months, of course, I learned a few things, including some info I wish I’d known before. Here are my top tips for hitchhiking Siberia:
1. Learn some Russian
Although Russians speak more than 100 languages, almost everyone knows Russian very well. The Russian alphabet looks scary at first, but you can understand how to read it after 30 minutes. The language is rich, expressive, strange and funny. There are multiple sources online that can teach you the language for free, or you can easily find a language partner from Russia who can help you while you can help them learn your native language.
2. Bring warm, warm, warm clothes
Even in the hot summer, temperatures can suddenly drop to around two to 10 degrees Celsius at night. It’s a bit annoying to wear different clothes at different times of the day, but it’s necessary. That said, most trucks I rode in had a heating system that works without a running engine, so if you’re staying in one overnight, you’re covered.
3. Install offline maps on your phone
Applications like 2GIS or Yandex Maps will enable you to download offline maps on your phone, and then you can navigate your way using GPS. They will also help you get to starting points on highways from anywhere in the city by suggesting bus numbers, showing the locations of bus stations and offering different ways of transport that can get you there and how long they take. Honestly, I think I would be lost somewhere in Siberia until now if it wasn’t for 2GIS.
4. Make sure to have a tent, a sleeping bag, a mosquito net and repellent
If you are hitchhiking in Siberia, a tent and a sleeping bag are always necessary, especially if you are hitchhiking in the autumn. Mosquitoes can be very annoying in Siberia, but only in the summer until the beginning of August. Siberia is famous even for its mosquitoes, but a simple mosquito net to cover your head with before you go to sleep would be more than enough, and mosquito repellent can be useful during the day.
5. Don’t be afraid of bears
People say Siberia is full of bears, and it’s true—but that can be a threat only if you hike so far into the forest, away from the road. Bears don’t come out usually near the roads as they are afraid of light, people, noise and cars. It’s safer to pitch your tent near a populated area, like a night stop for trucks or a gas station. I haven’t seen any bears during my hitchhiking in Siberia, but if you want to continue going to the far east, next to Kamchatka, then maybe you should take more precautions as the bear population there is much bigger.
6. Understand the truth about Russians and vodka
You may think that many Russians drink vodka 24/7. It might have been like that back in the Soviet times, but it’s not like that anymore. Most Russian millennials prefer beer, and many others don’t even drink at all, especially in the west. You will notice that the farther east you go, the more people drink, as temperatures get colder on the way. There are also severe punishments for drunk driving, so some people are even afraid to drink before going to sleep if they have to drive the next morning. Some drivers may advise you to drink vodka to get warm, but that’s dangerous in cold temperatures if you’re sleeping outside. That said, it might still be a good idea to keep some vodka with you, as I’ve found truck drivers grateful if you invite them for a drink before both of you go to sleep.
7. Enjoy sleeping in trucks
Only trucks will stop for you most of the times, and each truck usually has two beds, unless it’s a Soviet Kamaz truck. Many truck drivers will let you sleep on the other bed at night, and it’s usually very comfortable and warm. In the morning, you can enjoy the views of Siberian nature from your top bed while the truck is moving on the road, and you will just realize how crazy and great everything has been going for you so far. If you’re lucky, you might get invited to spend the night in the driver’s home. It was a nice experience for me once when I spent the night in a simple home in a Siberian village: the driver cooked for me, invited me to try his samagon—homemade Siberian vodka, usually drank with salted fish—and let me try his banya, a Russian sauna. Being a man has obviously helped me feel safe in these situations, but I can only speak from my own experience.
8. Don’t carry too much food or water
There are many stops on the road that offer fresh cooked meals, water, lodges, showers and anything you may need—all for prices that are usually cheaper than in cities. That’s because the roads are usually populated with trucks, and drivers always need somewhere to stop to have a decent meal and a shower. I recommend packing your bag with food and water just enough for one day at a time, to keep your bag’s weight down.
9. Make sure to hitchhike in the most appropriate location
If you don’t know, trucks need a long time to come to a complete stop. So make sure to hitchhike in the most appropriate location give the drivers time to see you before they decide whether they want to stop. Avoid hitchhiking in corners or at the bottom of hills, as it can be very hard for trucks to stop; often, they end up not stopping at all.
10. Never give up
If you are a hitchhiker, then you must be patient. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes you need to wait for a long time; the more eastward you go, the fewer cars you’ll find on the road. But patience will be rewarded—someone will stop eventually.
11. Make yourself helpful to the drivers
Don’t wait until the driver asks you to do something; always try to be helpful. If you notice something that needs to be done, ask permission and try to do it. All Russians are the same when it comes to that; they help each other. I once helped a truck driver change the giant brake pads for one of his wheels, and afterward, the driver was so thankful that he invited me to join him for the best plov I’ve ever eaten—an originally Uzbek dish filled with chicken, rice and lots of spices.
12. Beware of scam artists
If you meet anyone asking for money because they ran out of gas, don’t be fooled. There are many professional scammers in Russia, and they don’t discriminate between targets. They even managed to fool a driver with whom I was riding—they asked him for money in exchange for a big golden ring, which turned out to be fake. When you’re opening your world to strangers, it’s important to always think about who you can trust.
13. Be nice to the road police
Of the Russians I’ve met, many have hated the police. I heard many stories from many drivers about police corruption, usually followed by a series of curse words. I haven’t found them to be so bad—as I understand, police salaries have increased over the last few years, and corruption has been going down. Most truck drivers use wireless radio devices to talk about directions and the locations of police checkpoints (and even to curse each other when someone does something stupid on the road), but nevertheless, the road police have helped me by stopping cars and asking their drivers to pick me up. One nice officer stopped two trucks just to help me, and it worked.
14. Get ready to enjoy one of the best adventures of your life
Relax and enjoy the trip. You will come home with hundreds of stories to tell, both funny and inspiring. Russian truck drivers have a great sense of humour, their home-cooked meals are once-in-a-lifetime, the scenery is stunning and you’ll experience a side of the country you’ve never seen before.