Traditionally a Russian country house, the dacha is no longer just that. A new version of the dacha comes on wheels and is quite a rage with those who want that cheap break without the hassle of planning a proper vacation. Erika Niedowski checks out the new Russian sensation
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 (pronounced da.cha) on wheels.
The so-called Autodacha - a camper made in neighbouring Belarus that sleeps five and can deliver you far beyond the property line of your country estate - is rolling through the Russian countryside, alongside larger, more luxurious motor homes that dealers hope will become the next big thing in Russian leisure.
Serving a purpose
Like the Siberian wilderness, the motor home market here (in Russia) 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 utter lack of camping facilities.
Still, a growing number of dealers are renting and selling campers in hopes that they will change how and where 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.
Russians typically receive at least four weeks of vacation a year in addition to a half-dozen other national holidays. The most popular summer destination, by far, is the dacha; about a quarter of Russians have a cottage equipped for use in the warmer months, about the same percentage that has a car to get them there.
A dacha is not just a place of repose away from the noise and grime of cities. During Soviet times, the dacha came to represent a prized space of one's own.
Given small plots of land by the state, Russians freely tended their fruit and vegetable gardens, and did so with purpose - to bring food to 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 travelling abroad - 6.7 million in 2005, the government reports - and more are beginning to explore sights at home, from the northern fishing holes of Karelia near the Finnish border to the warm sunshine of the Black Sea region in the south.
Such domestic travellers are potential users of motor homes.
"Russians, even though they like to go abroad, they get tired of Europe and other places,'' says Autodacha's founder, Igor Kamarov, who hopes that demand this summer will allow him to expand his fleet of campers for rent. "They are becoming more interested in travelling around Russia.''
The Autodacha rents for about $100 (about Dh368) a day, a considerable sum in Russia. Zakir Mursakulov, general director of Caravan Center, a Moscow-based dealership of German-made Hymer campers, says the Camp Classic model, which sleeps six, costs about $180 (about Dh662) 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 (Dh184,000) to $75,000 (Dh276,000). Mursakulov says he has sold five campers since December last year.
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,'' says 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 US State Department and Department of Commerce concluded that 43 per cent 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 says the lack of a modern highway system cost the national economy about three per cent a year.
That hasn't deterred Oleg Kondratyev, deputy director of a Moscow equipment manufacturer. Although 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 says. "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 says. "Of course, when you drive 50 km from Moscow, there's the same reaction.''