Off limits

Chelyabinsk, 16.06.2019

Leaving Yekaterinburg to the South, after an hour I left the main highway to drive towards what Wikipedia and Google maps in terrain view had promised as a more mountain-like landscape than the previous day. I had also found out during my research that nearby was a “closed city” by the name of Ozersk and nearby a lake, where in the 1950’s the Soviets dumped a whole lot of radioactive waste into, making it one of the most contaminated places on the planet. The Kyshtym disaster in 1957 is one of those Soviet environmental barbarities that were covered up in secrecy until the 1980’s, contaminating lots of people and vast stretches of lovely countryside. Since these things are beyond my imagination, and also watching Chernobyl didn’t help, I decided to go and see the place, as it was on the way into the supposed mountains anyway.

Once off the main highway, the roads got pretty bad. Partially I was driving over mud tracks or remains of tracks of concrete blocks with metal bars coming out of them. Any of those could have pierced a tyre easily. Trying to avoid unnecessary trouble I had to drive slalom for a while, focussing my entire attention on the few meters in front of the Mini. When I reached Ozersk I realized the city is still closed today. There were checkpoints at the city gates and queues of cars. I stopped at a distance, checking Google maps for alternative routes. The suggested one led to the east of the closed city, close to the contaminated lake. I followed Google maps, until it told me to leave the main road for an unpaved track. There was a stop sign at the beginning of it, with something written in Russian under it that I couldn’t understand. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to take this road, but as I found no alternative on Google maps, I slowly drove on. Shortly after there was another checkpoint, with a barrier, a chain of nails on the ground, barbed wire, a German shepherd and armed guards peaking around a container. I stopped at a distance, checked the map again, and didn’t know what to do. “Well, let’s ask the guards, they for sure can tell me where I can go and where not.”

As I stopped at the barrier and got out of the Mini, two women in uniform, the Kalashnikov in their hands, came towards me. They didn’t speak a word of English, and when I asked for the road, they asked me for my passport. One of them disappeared into the container with it, and a few minutes later a silver Lada jeep with two other armed guards arrived at speed and parked behind me. The two guys got out, but as they also spoke no English there wasn’t a lot to do. I took out my iPhone and paper maps, trying to make them tell me what roads I could take. They still had my passport. Another few minutes later a UAZ minibus came speeding towards us, and two more armed people in uniform appeared. One woman with platin blond hair and a Central Asian face seemed to be the highest ranking officer and was supposed to speak English. I explained my situation again, she partially understood, but didn’t speak. “Protokoll” she said, taking out a whole bunch of papers, and indicating I should get into their minivan with them. They also called the next level in their hierarchy. As the fake blonde started to ask me questions to fill the “protokoll”, a white BMW X5 arrived shortly afterwards. A guy in a gym suit stepped out of if, in his hand he had a thick mobile phone that reminded me of a mix between a toughbook and my old sat phone. He didn’t speak English, but directed the blonde on how to write the “protokoll” properly. She had to restart writing. In the meantime, a friendly older guy that spoke a few words of German tried to chat with me – where I was from, what languages I spoke, how I got here. They kept calling the first two women into the minibus, one sat inside with her Kalashnikov, the other one started to take pictures of the Mini in front of the barrier, under the direction of the gym suit guy. It started to rain for a bit. A police car arrived, and a policeman in uniform came towards the minibus. “We call FSB. Straf.” This was getting complicated, and it would take time.

More than an hour and a half of “protokoll” writing later, with many questions, explaining my story over and over again, I was asked to sign a document in Russian that I didn’t understand and nobody was able to translate. There was no cell phone reception, so I couldn’t call anybody or use Google translate. I asked to speak to the German consulate in Moscow, and they told me that we had to drive to the police station as I wasn’t allowed to call from where we were. Everybody was polite, professional, calm. But I was the only person without a weapon, they outnumbered me six to one, my passport was gone, and the Mini was surrounded by other cars. The German Shepherd occasionally started to bark. They wanted me to take the police man in the Mini with me. I told them the car was full. They offered to put some of my stuff into the minivan. I remembered a recent story about a critical journalist that got arrested for supposedly dealing with drugs. His lawyer said he drugs were planted by the police. I insisted I drive alone in the Mini. They accepted, and the whole convoy took off. Where the track met the main road they stopped me, their three vehicles blocking the access to the road. One of the women, directed by the gym suit guy, took several photos in different angles of the Mini close to the stop sign I couldn’t read before. Then we took off, the police car in front, then the minibus, then me and the white BMW at a distance behind me.

The police station in the next village was a simple wooden house behind a fence, with no signs on it. We all entered. From the road once I had signal I had called the German embassy in Moscow. On a Sunday afternoon it took a while to speak to somebody. Only as I got out of the Mini at the police station I managed to speak to the right person, and explained my situation. “Give me a bit and I’ll call you back with somebody that can speak Russian.” The police station was nothing fancy and pretty run down. But police stations generally don’t win architecture prizes anywhere, so I wasn’t too surprised. I was asked to sit down at a desk, and had to present my documents other than the passport, so that the policeman could fill out a form. Then more people appeared. A young blond girl was brought in to translate. She spoke good English. A young man was with her, both in civilian clothes. And one tall guy in civilian clothes, that in his bag had my entire immigration file and a printout of my visa request. He asked me questions to verify the data of my visa. Later two more guys in civilian clothes would show up, and two more policemen.

I asked for the toilet, they laughed, and one policeman led me to a wooden shack with a hole in the ground at the back of the compound. He waited for me outside at a distance. Back in the house, Alesia the translator finally managed to give both sides more context. They claimed that somewhere before Ozersk there was a “big yellow sign on the road, in English”, clearly saying that this was a restricted area forbidden to foreigners. I had breached Russian law and had to pay a fine, and sign lots of documents. The German embassy had gotten back to me by SMS, instructing me not to sign any documents I didn’t understand. I unfortunately had just signed the “protokoll” of the first group of armed guards plus gym suit guy of the restricted area, who had left me a copy and then taken off. So now the guns were out of the room at least. But the new crowd, that seemed to be a mix of uniformed and plain clothes policemen and civilians, was sceptical. German passport, Russian name, Spanish car, Italian birthplace, passport issued in New York, shows up in a restricted area and asks for info at a road block? They wanted to see my social media accounts, but I refused. They asked if I had taken pictures inside the restricted area, and I showed them one of my mobile phones with pics from the last days, but no pics of today. I told them I was blogging and using Instagram and Facebook. Then I had to do fingerprints, the old school way with black ink. One policeman got out a big cardboard box with an ink tube and a roller, and started to color all my 10 fingers. He then rolled each of the tips thoroughly on a piece of paper where they had written my name, birthday and address on top. Then he colored the rest of my two hands and took prints of the complete fingers, and in the end of the palm of my hands. I was about to joke that now they could even predict my future, but in the last moment I dropped the joke.

During all this time they spoke in Russian among each other and I didn’t understand a word. Alesia was doing back and forth between them and me. Everybody was friendly and professional, given the circumstances. The fingerprint guy, once he was done, helped me wash my hands with dish soap and a bottle of water. Alesia gave me hand cream. I realised I needed to make them understand I was just a tourist, and that I was scared of the whole procedure that by now had lasted about four hours. The day was getting late, I didn’t know if I would get out of there, and had no place to stay for the night. The whole fingerprint action seemed very weird to me. Upping the pressure on my side, I told them I wasn’t used to this type of treatment by law enforcement of a democratic country, and that this reminded me of the Gulag I had seen the day before. This pissed Alesia off, and I ad to calm her down. But it worked, they stayed friendly and tried to reassure me all was good. With Alesia’s help we managed to get all paperwork filled out. They explained me all my rights, incl. the right to not sign. In that case they told me that future visa requests might get refused, but that my current visa would stay valid, also for future entries to Russia. Big relief, as otherwise I could not have come back to Europe from Central Asia.

Next was a check of my Mini. I told them nobody could enter the car, as I didn’t want to end up like the journalist with the planted drugs. They seemed to know what I was talking about, and politely agreed to stay away from the car and let me open any bags they would want to see. Surrounded by the entire group I went out with them to check the Mini. One of the guys in civilian clothes that so far had just stayed in the background lead the check. I opened one door after another, making sure no door stayed open out of my sight. Bags with clothes, food, camping equipment, foto camera, bag of books. “Did you take any pictures in the restricted area?” “No.” “Religious books?” “No, literature, to read on the road.” “Drugs? Weapons?” “No, just parecetamol, and vino.” “What type of car is this?” “A Mini.” “Mini? What is that?” “It’s a small fun car, part of BMW.” “Aha.”

Back in the office I had to write on three forms that I denied signing. The translator had to then translate what I had written, and we all signed all three forms. Suddenly two other civilians showed up and signed the documents too. “Who are these two people, Alesia?” “Witnesses, they need to sign.” “But they just arrived, they have no clue.” “I don’t know, that’s the way it goes.” I was told I had to pay 2.000 RUB (~28 EUR/31 USD) at a bank, then Whatsapp the civilian with my visa documents a foto of the payment receipt, otherwise I could not leave the country. I got all my documents back, and five hours after stopping at the barrier I was free again. I shook hands with everybody, and off we went in different directions. Sigh of relief. Shortly after I saw a sign on the other side of the road. It was white, I wouldn’t have noticed the one small sentence in English crammed between Russian text, that indeed said the area was closed off to foreigners.

The next morning I left the fancy hotel in Chelyabinsk, the site of the 2013 meteor. I needed a good sleep in a clean place after last afternoon’s events. Shortly after 09.00 I went to find a bank in a shopping mall across the street. Sberbank, the state bank, was closed, so I entered another bank next door. Friendly ladies that didn’t speak a word of English showed me the way to a cashier, and another lady tried to process the payment. There seemed to be an issue with the account data. She called the police guy, who whatsapped me back a foto of a document for her. I spent about an hour in the bank, and they didn’t manage to process the payment. As I was waiting, I kept thinking about the previous day. I tried to imagine how the scene would have looked like if, for example, a guy with a Russian passport, born in Kazakhstan, with a car from Belarus, and maybe named “Ernest” or “Jack” plus a Russian surname, would have shown up in his dirty UAZ at a checkpoint of a US or European off limits area, two mobile phones in his hands, the car full of weird equipment, asking for road info, speaking only Russian, or maybe Chinese, but no English or any major European language. I’m not sure it would have gone much different, quite frankly. In the spirit of Sun Tsu I put myself in the shoes of the whole crew I had ran into yesterday at the checkpoint. In hindsight I must admit that they were very friendly, trying to help, find a translator. They stayed calm, had a job to do and a responsibility in a sensitive zone. I had just driven straight up to a checkpoint to an area off limits to foreigners, that I wasn’t even allowed to get close to. The place was hiding a nuclear weapons factory and a dump site of a major nuclear disaster. They said this keeps happening, and also knew Google maps was sending people their way. “Use Yandex maps.”

As the bank couldn’t process the payment in over one hour, they sent me back to Sberbank, that was open now. I had to wait shortly. On Facebook I watched a clip of Trevor Noah about how the TSA would handle a guy called Jihad trying to enter the US. Yes, the above situation in the US would have ended worse I guess. It was my turn, and in 10 minutes the resolute Sberbank cashier had processed the payment. I sent the police guys the whatsapp pic of the receipt. Issue closed.

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