This post is a general overview/explanation of my trip to the Northern Caucasus.
More detailed, funny, and exciting selected stories to come!
At the end of July, 2015 I decided to finally stop putting it off and go into the Northern Caucasus- the Russian Caucasus. I have wanted to travel here for years, probably since I first saw the film Кавказский Пленец (Prisoner of the Caucasus) at Startalk Russian Academy in 2011. The interesting thing about this part of the world is the impressions people have of it, the ideas and images and beliefs they’ve formed at a distance, that they share with you as soon as they find out you’re considering a trip.
- Russians from the cities usually react with fear and confusion, even disgust- why would anyone want to visit that uncivilized backwater?
- People from Tbilisi are also usually fearful, but more encouraging. They see a value in visiting their northern Caucasian cousins, but very few Georgians I’ve spoken with have visited themselves (whether that’s a consequence of limited financial resources, disinterest, or stringent visa laws I can’t say).
- No one in Georgia (and few people in Russia) understands why I would travel on my own, or how I can travel on my own. “I could never do that” is the response I get most frequently. When asked why not, people usually respond either that they would get too lonely/bored, that it’s too dangerous, or that it’s just not culturally acceptable (especially in the regions outside Tbilisi).
- People from the North Caucasus usually are very excited and dismiss any concerns about safety. It’s also not uncommon for locals to give me conflicting answers as to whether a place is safe. Of course, there’s a difference between being safe for a group of young local guys to go to visit their friends and being safe for an American woman to travel alone as a tourist.
So, needless to say, choosing where to go on this trip was difficult and confusing, and in the end I decided to just be flexible and play things by ear.
I scribbled out a bunch of potential cities and routes on the back of a work memo, using Google maps to eyeball-estimate convenience of travel. I came up with a few alternative routes:
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Nal'chikTbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Nal'chik > Grozny
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Grozny > Nal'chik
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Grozny > Makhachkala > Derbent
In fact, I ended up following none of those potential routes.
Instead, I went:
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Nazran > Grozny > Vladikavkaz >Kazbegi > Tbilisi
Here's what happened...
My friend Kakha met at off the marshrutka in Kazbegi and we headed to his house. He owns a guest house and that night there were lots of people there and we cooked and had a sort of party, talking and laughing and eating late into the night.
|crossing through the Dariali|
Gorge to Russia on foot
|arriving in Vladikavkaz|
|the marsh to Nazran- all Ingush women|
and here is where you should stop reading if you are an adult who is deeply concerned with my safety and will yell at me for doing stupid dangerous things...
---Seriously, dad, just skip ahead a few paragraphs---
I don't like standing on the side of the road. This road to Nazran is wide, flat, dusty, and unmarked. It's flanked by open fields of weedy grasses. It feels lazy and boring to just stand there waiting in that field and I'm restless. So instead of just standing, waiting for the marshrutka to drive by, I started walking towards Nazran, planning to flag down the marsh as it passed. However, after about 5 minutes (several cars honking as they zoomed by), a sleek, shiny BMW slowed down and stopped a few meters in front of me. My heart skipped a beat, both nervous and excited. I cautiously approached the passenger side of the vehicle, tightly gripping the straps of my backpack like armor. Leaning down to the window, I saw an old Ingush man in a traditional Caucasian felt hat, Muslim prayer beads hanging off his review mirror. I asked if he was headed back to Nazran and if he could take me to the city center, he agreed, but once in the car I told him my final destination was Grozny, and he explained that he was going to his family's village halfway to Grozny, and it would be best if he just took me there himself.
"Where are you from?"
"I live in Georgia...Tbilisi"
"Um..." I paused, considering my options- I could say I was not Georgian and not elaborate, which is sometimes a fun, coy little guessing game, but I didn't think this man would appreciate it; I could tell him I was American and risk a negative response sparking aggressive political affirmations, entrepreneurial attempts to exploit my citizenship, or anything else; I could just say yes, I'm Georgian..., "Yes,"
We chatted for a few more minutes,
"Your accent doesn't sound very Georgian," he suspected my deceit
"Well...I...well, my mom..."
"Where are you really from?"
"My father is American"
"Ahhhhh I see, American..."
I explained that I don't usually tell people right away that I'm American, that it sometimes invites unwanted interest or anger, and he completely understood. He didn't ask me any awkward questions about being a spy or try to kick me out of the car or ask me how on earth I could live in a country with a black president. He was genuinely interested in what I thought of his Northern Caucasus and we had a nice conversation about both of our families.
I didn't fully understand the road plan, though, because I was surprised when we stopped on the side of the highway after about 30 minutes. Here was the turn off to his village, and he would be leaving me here...but not without a ride. He flagged down the second car that passed- a sporty black Toyota. The young driver took me to Grozny without much chatting. He was pleasant and very non-threatening, but was more interested in blasting his house music than talking. He didn't even ask my name until we arrived, although he did take the sun shades off the windows so I could see the countryside flying by. He wanted no money, didn't try to get my phone number or Facebook information, he just wanted to help me on my journey.
|refueling on the road to Grozny|
We arrived in Grozny about an hour later, and he offered to drive me through "Grozny Sea" and the city center. After our mini tour, I asked him to drop me in the center, perhaps at a hotel whose name I had read in an outdated online magazine article. He didn't know the hotel, but also didn't want to leave me on the street, so he started calling all of his friends and asking about the hotel, eventually giving up and suggesting an alternative. I ended up in a pretty nice hotel that wasn't much more expensive than I had planned on spending. Plus the manager/check in desk operator/security guard had a shy smile and a glock strapped to his waist, so I was too intrigued to leave. I spent that night in Grozny, where I met two guys who decided my further plan. I realized that I shouldn't go to Dagestan on this trip- not enough time, not enough people, not enough previous planning. My new friends also promised to show me around Grozny and let me in on some insights of Chechen life if I stayed, so I did.
|hotel guy's gun|
|my Chechen friends/tour guides/body guards|
|I love Vladikavkaz!|
|the homies of Vladika|
|my taxi back to Georgia|
|crossing into Georgia|
|party in Kazbegi|
The next morning, I finally found my way onto a marshrutka back to Tbilisi. Which got in an accident 30 minutes into the trip. And the main road into the city was closed due to the European Youth Olympics. So it took forever to get back...but I still made it into the office for the last part of the day, and my boss wasn't even mad!
|when the marsh crashed...|