On our way back east we get a ride from a guy with South Ossetian license plates. We’ve seen a lot of them around. Our driver explains why: cars that are registered on the other side of the border (outside Russia) don’t have to pay tax. He doesn’t have insurance either. Since he knows most of the local police officers it isn’t a problem. It’s cheaper paying the occasional fine for driving uninsured.
Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, is the most Russian city we’ve been to since Astrakhan. Not surprising perhaps because it was founded by the Russian imperial army as a strategic base. The city’s name translates as ‘lord of the Caucasus’. The ethnic Russian population is a minority though, and the city is inhabited by people with all kinds of different backgrounds. It’s a big contrast with the virtually mono-ethnic Grozny, something which is reflected in the city’s diverse building styles.
On the road to the resort town of Pyatigorsk we get stopped by the police. Apparently foreigners are only allowed on the main road in Ingushetia. Luckily our driver knows how to argue with the police, and after a lengthy discussion centred on how we are supposed to know which roads are off limits to us the police officer relents. All he wants to do is see a passport and registration, which is a bit difficult since I never bothered to register, having never been asked for proof on my previous visits to Russia. Luckily I’m in the passenger seat, and Daryl is closer to the cop. Once his papers are checked I don’t have to show mine. A lucky escape.
Our next driver is a friendly guy who apparently likes to hedge his bets. Hanging from his rear view window are a a small Lenin pin, a portrait of Kadyrov and a Saint George’s ribbon. I am hoping he’s on good terms with the police too when we are stopped at a checkpoint. First our driver goes into the office. We wait a few minutes then Daryl has to inside go. I wait a few more minutes and then I start to get nervous because there’s a chance they’ll ask for my registration too. I wait a few more minutes and get more nervous. When Daryl finally returns he says the officer had trouble understanding his Chinese last name. Next I go inside. The policeman asks me a question. I say I don’t understand and shove my passport under his nose. It works: I’m free to go and less than a minute later we are on our way.
We don’s see any reason to stick around in Grozny for too long. But we’ve heard there is a beautiful lake to the east of the city. It takes forever to get there. The road winds through the Caucasus mountains and twice we have to wait for bulldozers to clear away rocks and dirt unclogged by the rain. But the wait gives us a chance to talk to the other people waiting for the road to clear.
One guy asks if I’ve brought any weed with me from Holland. It seems that even deep in a remote corner of Europe I cannot escape lame jokes about where I’m from. The road on which we wait offers a view of the ruins of a traditional Chechen stone tower house. ‘The Russians are pigs,’ one of the men tells us. ‘The reason they’re giving us money is because they are paying us blood money’.
We get our last ride from a security agent at the only hotel, a rather posh place with a rather unfortunate caged lion outside. We decide to eat here since we don’t seem to have many other options, a simple yet expensive traditional Chechen meal. Afterwards we head outside to find a place to sleep and get talking to the overseer of a few huts where people are preparing shashlik. He invites us into his caravan for tea and biscuits and says that we’re free to sleep outside where he can keep an eye on us and our things.
Most people who have been giving us rides are either involved in security work or construction. I guess it indicates that there’s not exactly a wide range of career options in Dagestan. But the guy driving us towards Chechnya is a phone salesman on his way to one of the biggest open air market in the Caucasus. iPhones are the most popular thing he sells, but he himself still swears by his Nokia. It’s the Kalashnikov of mobile phones,’ he says. After we get out we have to walk before we can find another ride. There’s a chaotic traffic jam we have to walk through: little Ladas in between giant SUVs, gypsy kids doing handstands for money. I hear a popping sound and turn to see a fairly real looking toy gun being aimed at my traveling companion from a car window. We decide not to bother with the market, but head straight towards Grozny. We cross the border between Dagestan and Chechnya with ice creams in our hands – the guy who gave us the ride had never met any tourists before.
In the mid afternoon we get dropped off on the outskirts of Grozny next to two new office towers. Tall and shiny with empty parking lots, the scene gives a glimpse of the city. Not so long ago the UN declared this the most destroyed city on earth, now streets named after Putin and local strongman Kadyrov are lined with grand new buildings. But the architecture seems like it’s more to impress than to actually provide useful spaces for the city’s residents.
The city gives a safe impression though, at least to us. We see money changers hanging out on street corners with big stacks of rouble notes in their hands. But it’s a cynical kind of safety. When we find out that our local couchsurfing host is involved with journalism he tells us it is extremely important that nobody finds out about his activities. Later I discover that just a few months after we met him, he was arrested on false charges and sent to a prison labor camp.
Gunib originally served as an Imperial Russian garrison town, though now a huge portrait of the 19th century independence fighter who surrendered close by stares down from the mountainside. We find the local ‘hotel’, a room in a multipurpose building on the central square with three sagging beds and a Soviet water cooker as its only luxury, pay roughly a euro and a half each or the privilege of spending the night there, and call it a day
The cheap hotel is the only reason we’re on Gunib. Actually we want to visit the town of Chokh, a traditional village situated on a mountainslope. When we get there we are greeted by a local guy. Apparently he’s someone important. We’re not entirely sure, but we suspect he has been tipped off by the police officer who stopped us last night. He takes us on a tour and treats us to lunch at his home.
On our way back we are stopped by the police yet again: the federal secret service wants to know why we’ve come here. As Daryl is by far the better Russian speaker he fields the call. But again nothing bad comes of it. Just before we head back to Makhachkala we walk up the mountain and a family invites us in for lunch. The fact that we stand out so much has good and bad sides.
When we get back to Makhachkala Daryl and I tour the city on bicycles and get chased down by the police, which was almost inevitable as we clearly don’t belong here and the region doesn’t see a lot of tourists. But they are quickly satisfied after inspecting our passports and visas. Another day we go camping by a beautiful lake together with our couchsurfing host and his girlfriend. In the morning we part ways as Daryl and I head to Gunib, a small town high up in the Caucasus mountains.
Getting rides proves easy, but we are slightly unlucky at one point when we get dropped off just before a checkpoint. Crossing it on foot, we’re sure to be questioned. We apprehensively approach the small concrete building surrounded by barbed wire and thick barricades, and we are quickly told to turn over our passports. I stare at a poster with rows of pictures of wanted men – most of the images have been struck through with a black X mark. A grim checklist. But seeing it makes me realize we have nothing to fear from these Kalashnikov-carrying uniformed men: the people on the poster look nothing like us.
One of the guards strikes up a conversation with us. Turns out he is a cop from Volgograd and used to have Daryl’s dorm in his precinct. He’s been deployed to Dagestan for a few months but is eager to return home. We get back our passports after a few minutes and the guys help us find a ride.
So we get off to a great start and things get even better when we get to the house where we’ll be staying. Though he was born and raised in Dagestan our couchsurfing host, Renat, is unlike the people we’ve been meeting so far. Through our discussions I get the impression that he’d be more at home in Western Europe than on the Caspian coast. And because he seems to be familiar with two worlds he proves indispensable in giving advice and explaining local culture.
When we visit the beach on our first day in Makhachkala we have to walk a bit till we get to a more quiet section, past playing kids, hawkers selling beach supplies and food, and women in full hijabs wading through the water. It’s one of the stranger beaches I’ve ever been to. When we join in an English lesson at Renat’s friend’s school we are asked why we are not too scared to come to Dagestan. A question we answer by pointing out that bad luck can strike anywhere.
But fortune has been very kind to us so far, mostly because of the very helpful people we keep on meeting. We head to the southernmost city in Russia, Derbent, where preparations are underway for celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the founding of the city. Throughout its long history many armies have passed through this city, whose name translates from Persian as ‘gate’. Traces of different civilizations are still to be found. A beautiful ancient castle protecting a narrow strip of land between the waters and the mountains, the entrance to the Caucasus, is now a museum and wedding venue.
I’ll be hitchhiking with Daryl, a Malaysian guy studying medicine in Volgograd. I wait for him to finish class in a park outside the university. While there I start talking to a young Chechen on a smoking break. I ask him if it is true what people have been telling me, that Grozny nowadays looks like Las Vegas. ‘It’s true, it’s beautiful now,’ he says. I try to imagine how a capitalist den of iniquity can be similar to a city where the local leader instructs his men to shoot paint balls at women without headscarves. I’ll soon find out.
My first meeting with Daryl goes well. His main motivation for traveling south was that his university explicitly forbade him from visiting the area. So he’s up for an adventure. He seems like an enthusiastic yet fairly laid back guy plus his Russian is way better than mine, he has a fair bit of medical knowledge and he is a guy, which considering Caucasian culture is an advantage. We’re going to some places with bad reputations but we’re hoping our combined skills will keep us safe. We leave for Astrakhan the next day.
The ride out of town comes early, but then… nothing. We wait, still nothing. We try to convince each other that this is no indication of how the rest of the trip will go: things are bound to get easier once we reach the Caucasus, so famed for its hospitality. But somehow that makes us even more despondent. We decide to split up. Daryl goes first as I hide out in the shade across the road but within ten minutes he has managed to talk the both of us onto a bus heading our way for free.
The cities start to blend into one. No matter where I go I encounter the same rows of gray apartment blocks, a few streets with houses from tsarist times, Soviet era statues and potholed roads. Samara doesn’t feel like it has a million and a half citizens. It’s quiet on the streets. I guess the day-long drizzle keeps people inside. I seek shelter in the regional museum which has a couple of shelves dedicated to the Stalinist terror, an unusual sight in an otherwise unremarkable place. The most impressive thing about the city is the wide Volga that runs through it.
A pendant with Arabic writing hangs from the mirror of the car taking me out of Samara. The driver is Chechen, though he left long ago. I take it as a good omen. I have made the decision to hitchhike through his homeland even though its reputation led me to seek out a travel partner who I’ll meet up with in Volgograd. If everybody is as nice as this driver I’ll be fine. Later in the day I’m picked up by a truck driver. He’s a slow driver, and as we pull up into a busy protected parking lot he calls it a night early. I consider trying to get another ride, but since I won’t reach my destination today anyway I figure I might as well wait until tomorrow.
I don’t feel very comfortable though: the guy has not explicitly done anything to deserve my distrust but he gives off a bad vibe, prying a bit too deeply into my love interests and asking if I want to borrow pajamas. I wonder if I should sleep outside but once again I decide to stay put and sleep in the front seat. The next morning he asks if I want to lie down in the bed behind the seats. I’m glad when we finally head off. Luckily he has a DVD player and I spend the next few hours watching a Russian series on Gulag life. Just before we reach the city the guy gets into a screaming match on his telephone. I feel an incredible sense of relief when he drops me off on the outskirts of Volgograd.
I’ve been told that the border between Europe and Asia is purely a political, imagined one as opposed to a physical, geographic one. Crossing the mountain pass through the Urals certainly doesn’t feel like a sea change. The guy giving me a ride is a police officer in a small mountain town and he loves to travel too. Though he doesn’t seem to understand my joy at being back in Europe he stops by the marker denoting the border between the two continents and offers to take a picture of me with the sign. We spent the ride talking about his plan to take his family and his car and drive all over Europe after his retirement. Both the difference in our background and our shared love of exploring serve as a reminder of the vastness of the Eurasian landmass and the seemingly endless number or roads that can be traveled down.
I get to Ufa by evening and spend the next day cycling about town. I spend some time at a house where Lenin lived for a while that has now been turned into a museum. Inside it feels like the Soviet Union never ended, but once I’m outside again it’s clear that Ufa is not caught in a time warp as I navigate my way through the streets filled with a mix of new SUVs and old Ladas to a posh, well-stocked bazaar in what used to be the Soviet central market.
The city is the capital of Bashkortostan, the land of Bashkirs, an ethnically Turkic, predominantly muslim people. The city’s mosques, bilingual street signs and all the different faces once more emphasize how ethnically and culturally diverse Russia is. I might have entered Europe, but I’m still a long way from home.
The only reason I want to be in Chelyabinsk is that it seemed like only a day hitchhiking away. Almost one thousand kilometers seems like a long way, but distances seem shorter in Siberia where hundreds of kilometers can lay between a town and it’s neighbor. But as it turns out, I’ve gotten overconfident and now a truck driver just dropped me off at a petrol station a hundred or so kilometers from my destination as it is starting to rain. Luckily there’s a 24 hour canteen. I get some goulash and spend the rest of the night playing solitaire on my laptop. I’m afraid the ladies will kick me out but nobody pays any attention to me.
In the morning I meet Alexander, dressed semi-formally and without any luggage. He’s hitchhiking to Saint Petersburg. When I ask him why he’s traveling without anything my Russian proves insufficient to asses whether he has a plausible explanation, something about a deal to move into an apartment having gone awry. Strange though he is, he’s a nice guy, I give him an apple since he hasn’t eaten and spent all of last night walking down the highway. We get a couple of short distance rides together until a truck stops and he insists that I’ll be the one who gets the empty seat.
Chelyabinsk was once the first port of call for people entering Siberia. A pretty main street still attests to its former commercial importance. Though the city is dominated by big pre-fab apartment blocks which are more in line with the city’s nickname ‘Tankograd’. When the Nazis overran large parts of the western Soviet Union factories were moved across the Ural and Chelyabinsk became the country’s largest producer of tanks.