Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Route Through the Caucasus

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'chik 
Tbilisi > 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...

I left my home in Tbilisi at about 1:30 pm on Wednesday, July 22, and got on the 3 pm  marshrutka to Kazbegi

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
In the morning, I went to visit my friends Nata and Mito, shared a hot cup of tea, and their son Dato drove me to the city center to get a taxi to the Russian border. While on the way there, Dato suggested that instead I just hitchhike to the I thought, hey, what the hell, and found a comfortable slice of highway to stick out my thumb. I'll write more about my hitchhiking adventures...but in short, I made it across the border and to Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia without spending a dime.  

arriving in Vladikavkaz
I walked around the city for the day, eating every Ossetian thing I could find and seeing the sights. I spent the night at a cheap hotel in Vladikavkaz, and the owner and staff were incredibly friendly. I met a young man from Makhachkala, Dagestan, who changed the trajectory of my trip. I had been planning on going to Nal'chik, Kabardino-Balkaria the next day, but after my exciting day and night (stories to come!) in North Ossetia, the sleepy resort town of Nal'chik seemed so tame. This guy also really talked up Dagestan, promising me I had nothing to be afraid of. I wasn't completely sold that I should go to Dagestan alone, but I wanted to at least leave myself the opportunity, so I decided to go to Grozny first, so that I had another day to decide whether to head south east to Dagestan or back west to Nal'chik.

the marsh to Nazran- all Ingush women
The next day I visited the Beslan memorial, and then hopped on a marshrutka (for less than $1) to Nazran, Ingushetia. After an incredibly awkward stroll around the city center in my jeans and giant backpack, I got some lunch and was put on another marshrutka by the restaurant proprietress to see the memorial to Ingush and Chechen Deportation on the edge of the city. My plan from there was to get a marsh back to the bus station and head on to Grozny, but...
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"

"You're Georgian?"
"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?"
Another pause.
"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
Now it was Saturday, and that evening at around 7:30 I pulled myself away from the group who adorably begged me to stay and found myself in a taxi with Ramzan Kadyrov's English translator headed back to Vladikavkaz. I decided to come back to "Vladika" as they call it, because I didn't feel I'd had enough time there, and I felt so comfortable. I wanted to explore more! The trip was about two hours, and all three of us (me, translator, and taxi driver) had dinner in the city, before they turned around and went back to Grozny...

I love Vladikavkaz!
the homies of Vladika
We had dinner on Vladikavkaz's main pedestrian street, and when they left I decided to take one last stroll, planning on leaving back to Tbilisi in the morning. Instead, I randomly met Zaurbek, a former world champion freestyle wrestler (and Olympian) who I got a drink with and who got me to agree not to leave right away in the morning...that night I stayed in the same hotel as before, but I arrived so late that I didn't see the owner. When I saw him in the morning, he was shocked that I had stayed in one of the "economy" rooms, and offered me a free room for that night in the newly renovated part of the hotel. That, plus Zaurbek inviting me to a wedding convinced me to stay an extra night! I spent the day with Zaurbek and his friends (we didn't actually end up going to a wedding, unfortunately, but it was still very fun), and I got a great night's sleep in a very comfortable free bed!

my taxi back to Georgia
crossing into Georgia
The next day, I finally had to leave Russia for real, because now it was Monday and I was supposed to be back at I got in a taxi (against my better judgement- I should have hitchhiked again, because that taxi was both extremely uncomfortable and I got extremely ripped off. I made it back to Kazbegi, Georgia, and my boss was calling me to do some urgent work. Although I planned on just staying an hour or so in Kazbegi to have lunch and say goodbye to friends, I now needed a computer. So I went to a friend's house and did work for about two hours, and then people were coming home from work and opening beers and I was introduced to some cool girls who begged me to stay the I did!

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...
Thus ended my glorious first trip to the Northern Caucasus of Russia...and definitely not my last. 

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