The Caucasus

Ikalto, 30.07.2019

The Caucasus mountains divide Europe from Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Driving back I wanted to check out the mountain range. Unfortunately manmade borders and political issues put up a few restrictions. There is only one border between Russia and Georgia open at the moment, as the two countries are in a state of conflict for many years unfortunately. The Russians have chopped off two pieces of their southern neighbors’ country, and the Georgians don’t like it – how comes… South Ossetia (one of those pieces) is a one way street from Russia and back, due to the conflict. Further West, I had passed the area around Mestia in 2013. Very beautiful, but no crossing. Mount Elbrus is on the Russian side. At the western end, Abkhazia is the other disputed piece. The whole area between Russia and Persia is a very intriguing one to me. Mountains and rivers in valleys, half Europe, half Asia, mix of religions, ancient cultures. There are a handful of small states, that fight with each other and their surroundings, leading to three “disputed territories” (the two mentioned above plus Nagorno Karabagh, that I visited in 2013. The people here are rough, violence is very present, also north of the mountains. Chechnya comes to mind, but also Ingushetia and Dagestan. I remembered the images of the Beslan school siege of 2004 on TV. Around here, the rule of the stronger prevails. People create their own states that almost nobody recognizes, and life still goes on. Little black or white, a lot of grey.

I left Baku late in the morning, having lost time on a phone call, and had to skip breakfast. Knowing there was a long day ahead, with only one place to stop at the end. On my way to the border I got lost between fields in Azerbaijan. I thought a lot about the “road tax” I had to pay at the port of Alat as the stones hit the Mini from below and the dust covered it neatly in light brown everywhere. I finally reached the border at 13:00. When I checked in at the Azeri border, at the customs control the trouble started. “Something about you in the system, wait.” So I did, and time started to pass with no action. As expected, among the Azeri officials nobody seemed to have a clear idea about what to do. Observing them it seemed to me there were two groups. One that wanted to check a few bags and let me go. The other that wanted to respect the formalities and do amore thorough check. As they kept discussing, I passed a few bags through the X ray. A sniffer dog took a tour of the Mini. My documents got handed from one official to the next, who all looked through the pages of passport and car document looking very seriously, over and over again. I was wondering if there was something written in an invisible ink that only customs officials’ eyes can read? Among the growing group of officials was also a man in civilian clothes that started to give instructions. And another guy, older, fat, bearded, asked me where I was going. “Chechnya?” “Who wants to know?” I asked back, and he stopped bugging me. All this was very strange, and the more time passed, the more it didn’t feel right. In the end they decided I had to pass the Mini through an X-ray scan. They told me to make space for one of them and drive to a mysterious place to check the car. “No way, none of you gets into my car.” I was scared they’d plant something in my Mini to screw me. And, me with one of them in the car and no witness if something went wrong? One of their most senior guys wasn’t amused about my repeated refusal. He said something like “bandit”, and I thought “that’s exactly what you are, bandits. Terrorists I’d also say.” I kept that for myself. Finally, two of them got into a jeep, and told me to follow them. As we drove back towards the exit of the border area, I looked up the German embassy in Baku on the German foreign ministry’s travel app. To exit the area, I had to pass another passport control, hand over a paper I had received on the way in. The passport guys didn’t trust their customs colleagues! They drove me about 1km over an untarred road into a big hangar with nobody around. “Take out all your things!” “I’m not putting my bags in the dirt here and not out of my sight.” “OK, into the office container then.” I had to unpack the entire Mini in the heat, as they watched. I had called the embassy already, and was waiting for a call back. They scanned the Mini, looked at the scan over and over again, and guess what – found nothing. Because there was nothing in that tiny car! As they were getting finished, the embassy called back, with an interpreter. I handed over the phone, and now suddenly none of them wanted to take the call. Finally one started to speak to the officials from the German embassy, and got very polite and defensive. “Herr Hageney, from what we understand they are done and you can go.” “OK, thank you so much for your help. If this is not over in the next half hour I’ll call back. If you don’t hear from me, all is good.” Back at the station, they discussed among them, and finally let me go. I survived Azerbaijan! Three hours of border check also on the way out. I’m sure that guy at the Alat port customs office put a note on my file requiring intensive checks on the way out.

Funny side note: a day later I get a “customer satisfaction enquiry” email from the Azerbaijan eVisa authorities, asking me about my experience. I can hear you laughing out loud, and yes, you can guess the feedback I gave them.

Back to our border story. I had to spend an hour on the bridge between Azerbaijan and Russia, in the heat. Solitaire and crackers and tea. The Russian control was a lot more organized. It felt less arbitrary, more structured and professional. A tall, oder gentleman with grey hair welcomed me at the customs control, and called me by my name every time he needed something. Then he came out, the two customs forms I had already filled out a few times in his hands, and in Russian explained me every field. He knew I don’t speak Russian, but I knew the form. I filled them out in a rush, and he didn’t like that. I understood he couldn’t read everything, and wanted a neatly filled out form. I had to explain what I wrote, and fill it out one more time. He then very diligently made endless copies of my passport and car documents, filled out a lot of data on their PC with a colleague. They were not suspicious or unfriendly, just very, very meticulous in their process. Almost five hours after reaching the border, I rolled into Russia, with an almost empty tank and stomach.

At this point I knew I had about three hours of light. Streets would be mixed, drivers probably difficult, and I expected a lot of old Soviet vehicles to overtake. Not good. My plan to visit the Derbent castle had been trashed, I just had to drive fast now. I drove about an hour on good roads along the Caspian sea, on the only stretch that avoids the mountains to get north. Derbent sits on the edge of the mountains, and the castle overlooks everything that passes between north and south. An ideal toll collection point, and the castle was pretty big. I found it by coincidence, as I got lost in Derbent looking for a gas station. I finally managed to put some diesel into my tank, around here the gas stations were all no-name, and I wasn’t sure if they sold real “Euro diesel” as the claimed. After Makhachkala the road leads through a valley away from the sea, north-westwards. I had the sun in my left eye as it went down, and as expected I had to do a lot of overtaking all the time, in long vehicle columns on mostly two lane roads. As it got dark, I noticed the cars changed to small mostly white Lada sedans. The driving style got increasingly aggressive, and the few faces I could see behind the wheels got more bearded, with darker looks. The windows also got blacker, and flashlights were a big thing again here. The Chechens drove crazier than the Uzbeks. Here they approached me not out of curiosity, but because they wanted to race, cut off my road. As in Uzbekistan, the same car would come racing with full flashlights out of nowhere, glue to my rear bumper. I’d then let them pass, they would speed into the darkness. And some minutes later I’d pass them again as they drove 60 km/h on the side of the road. Only to repeat the exercise a few moments later. Half the cars would drive like that, it freaked me out. One guy cut me off so sharp I had to step on the break big time, repeatedly. I passed roadside bazaars in the night, car stops, shashlik smoke, petrol fumes, blinking lights, honking cars. I wanted to see this with daylight, this wasn’t how I planned it to work out. Finally, around 22:30 I rolled into Grozny, with one of the Ladas following me from one red light to the next, wanting to race all the time. As I parked the Mini in front of probably the best hotel in town, I was exhausted. I hadn’t eaten the entire day, apart from a few nuts and crackers. The room service offered club sandwich, pasta or Texas burger. I feasted and got a shower.

The next morning I drove through Grozny on my way out. The Chechens and Russians have a history of conflict, including two brutal wars in the past 25 years. I had read that since then a big re-building operation had been undertaken. Having seen former war zones, especially Sarajevo, I wanted to see how the Russians had handled the clean up. Grozny was indeed fully cleaned up. I didn’t see a single war scar all day. Big roads, shiny new high rises and other buildings, parks, mosques, palaces, malls. On the walls, big pictures of their leader. Vladimir Putin also is shown a lot around here, in Central Asian style, where the “presidents” are omnipresent. Chechnya is a tiny place, and in about an hour I was out again. I wanted to drive through a smaller road through the mountains to the border with Georgia, to see a natural reserve. After passing two military checkpoints the road led into beautiful mountains, though a steep valley with a little river in it. Then suddenly I had to stop at a bigger checkpoint. Ingushetia is also an unstable region, and the Russians are taking no chances around here. A young and very friendly soldier, Kalashnikov on his shoulder, explained me in Russian that this was a special permit zone, and that I had to drive back to the main road to take the next major road into the mountains. What a pity, it was very beautiful up there. About two hours later I passed Vladikavkaz, the last big Russian city. As I drove into the mountains, I stopped at a huge modern Restaurant, that could also have stood in Moscow, with the same menu books and lots of dished to choose from. Well fed the road to the border was a short drive away. Being the only border with Georgia, it was busy. Russian, Georgian and Armenian vehicles went both ways. About an hour and a half later I was done.

Behind the border a big Georgian church welcomed me, and after a series of tunnels (one could have been in Switzerland, the other resembled the Anzob tunnel before being finished) the road let up into wonderful mountains, over 2000m high. The road is being improved, to it was half perfect and half construction site. The scenery more than compensated, and after Central Asia the few bumpy stretches were a piece of cake. This was Mini territory, and although I was extremely careful with the Mini (that needs to be checked up asap), we did enjoy the curves up and down again. Georgia felt very much European, much more than Russia. On the plains barbecue parties and picnics were frequent. Paragliders flew into the valleys. The towns were bustling with activity, hotels were being built, road stops. No more headscarves, women can dress freely again. Normal cars on the roads, normal driving behavior. As I drove down the valleys, little forests appeared, castle ruins on a lake, medieval towers on the mountains. I was headed towards the Telavi valley, and the road lead through smaller valleys. It got smaller and curvier, a lot of fun with the Mini. Had it been in better shape I would have tested the Mini’s limits around here. Then the road disappeared and became a construction site, gravel track, stone track, on some stretches very bumpy, steep and rocky, forcing me to drive in first gear downhill. I wasn’t sure I would have made it up again in case I got lost around here. Darkness fell as I drove out of the mountains, into the wine valley. At about 20:30 I found a room for the night, and a delicious Georgian food and wine fest, to compensate for last night’s ramadan! What a day, in 11 hours so much change.

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