Continuing a theoretical journey from west to east through the North Caucasus … having been to Adegeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and now Kabardino-Balkaria, the next three republics in line are Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya. Politics being what it is, I shant be going to any of them. But here is some background info for the curious.
The Ossetians (also known as the Alans) are the only predominantly Christian North Caucasian people and as such have long been (for centuries) Russia’s closest ally in the region. – Most of the peoples of the North Caucasus are nominally islamic, but in reality that religion is not at all strong here, apart from perhaps in Chechnya. I have not heard a single call to prayer from a minaret (or even seen a minaret) since Crimea. The mosques I have seen look more like social clubs for the elderly. None of the Nogai I spent time with went to the mosques or turned to prey to Mecca even once a day let alone 5 times. Yes they call themselves islamic, but with the same degree of conviction that the average Brit or Australian will call themselves Christian if pressed on the question of religion. Put it this way, I have only met one person since arriving in the muslim North Caucasus who actually doesnt drink.
With the long history of working together, (and with centuries of precedent of Russia being the ultimate defender of Ossetian interest in the Caucasus) Russia ultimately had no choice but to step in when the Georgians decided to push adventurism beyond sensible limits last August. Unfortunately, that conflict is still pretty fresh, and both North and South Ossetia are now heavily militarised. I have been advised by friends in Moscow that an attempt to ride through North Ossetia now will mean getting stopped every 10km for thorough document checks .. and thats the best case scenario. So I will skip Ossetia.
Next door to the Ossets / Alans are the Ingush. Ingushetia was formerly joined with Chechnya but have more recently fought against the Chechens for independence. Now they have their own republic within the Russian Federation, but its a bit of a disaster. Last I heard there was still a civil war raging within Ingushetia between rival family clans vying for power. Its a definite no-go-zone.
Then you have the Chechens. Not much needs to be said about the Chechens as they are already the best known of the North Caucasians in the west. In my book, travelling solo on a motorcycle through Chechen country is just asking for trouble. Things are apparently slowly returning to normality in Chechnya after 2 wars with Russia in the recent past, but in general, if you can avoid it, you dont want to mess with the Chechens – they are seriously hard core.
Finally, the last republic in the chain is the ‘relatively’ peaceful Republic of Dagestan, lying beside the Caspian Sea. And thats what my plan was for today … make it to the Nogai centre of Terekli Mekteb in Dagestan. My meetings with the Nogai in Cherkessk have encouraged me to learn more about these people. My knowledge of them before was basically about their history, but I am aware that most westerners have never even heard the word Nogai, let alone known about their history. So this is a great chance for me to delve a little deeper, and shine a little light on the Nogai people.
I left the simple Hotel Elba and prepared to backtrack 100 km down the road to Baksan. There is only one road in and out of Elbrus, and its pretty much a straight line from Baksan on the ‘Kavkaz Highway’ (for want of a better name) and Elbrus. It meant going past Tirnyauz where the police obviously had a donation centre for their retirement fund set up.
Paying up to the police is something that is just part of life in Russia. The cops here get paid peanuts and this kind of behavior is ‘sorta kinda’ tolerated by the state because the alternative would mean raising their wages to much more acceptable levels. Having said that, there has been pressure in recent years to minimise that sort of behaviour, but naturally enough it needs to go hand in hand with higher wages. Initially the donation requested yesterday was 1000 rubles, but I deliberately fished into a pocket where I only had about 580 rubles, for just such an occasion, and the guy sighed and said OK OK .. so 500 it was. Its actually the reason I left the UK with 2 wallets. I have always travelled in Russia with 2 wallets, one main one and a second with a small amount of cash and expired plastic cards.
It used to happen all the time in Moscow … Police have the right to stop you on the street for a document check (passport is required to be on you at all times) and they also have the right to hold you for 3 hours to “verify” the documents are genuine etc. So in effect they would often stop foreigners, and threaten to taken them down to the station for 3 hours to verify the documents … and the donation you gave them was just to buy back your 3 hours of wasted time. Thus, I always kept a second wallet with a small amount of cash in it. They would take whatever you had. If you opened a wallet that had 5000 rubles in it, it would cost you at least 1000, if you open a wallet with 120 rubles in it, they cant really take more than 100 (2 quid).
It doesnt seem to happen anymore, but I have become accustomed to the whole second wallet system, but unfortunately that plan blew out the window in Odessa … and I am using a strategic combination of pockets to keep assorted funds in now.
Speaking of funds, while in Cherkessk I received my PIN code for my new Ukranian debit card. I now have a source of plastic funding again.
So I began the day in sunshine, but in pretty cold temperatures. I didnt know how cold it was, but by the time I reached the police checkpoint just North of Tirnyauz, they chaps there informed me it was -1 there. In which case it was probably -5 or so up at 2000 metres where I had overnighted. Different guys were manning the checkpoint today but waved me on once I told them I had been thru the checkpoint yesterday afternoon on the way up. – first obstacle of the day avoided.
My modified plan for the day was basically to get to Terekli Mekteb while avoiding Chechnya and the Mozdok area. Nadia, the lady who runs the Russian Motocycle-Touring organisation, had informed me that Mozdok is a major military centre, surrounded by dozens of proper checkpoints. Checkpoints were a major waste of time, so I was keen to avoid that.
I couldnt find the road I needed out of Baksan. The GPS maps I had (Smellybiker.com) have a lot of roads on them but they are not exactly accurate. … only indicative. Usually they are out by 2-300 yards and up to 5km sometimes. So I left by a road which was roughly in the same direction, and 20km out of town found some tractor tracks beside fields and took a 6km steppe tour before reaching my road. I snuck past two police checkpoints while they were busy with other motorists (so far it was a good day with the police).
By now I had left Kabardino-Balkaria and was back in Russia proper – Stavropol Region where Mr Gorbachev had risen to power back in the 1980s. I took some lovely peaceful back roads past towns called ‘Progress’, ‘Sovietskaya’, ‘Prolitarnaya’ etc etc. Some of these town didnt look like they had changed much since Gorbachev’s day. The roads were pretty potholed, and the few cars that were on my route drove pretty slowly for purposes of pothole avoidance. But it was pretty countryside – as flat as Holland and just as green. Just the towns and roads were in worse shape – well maybe not if you compare to Rotterdam
I stopped for lunch and to refuel at a town called Kurskaya … pretty much a one horse town. I drove thru the whole town before realising the 2-3 shops I had passed WAS the centre of town. Lunch was a couple of cold cabbage pirozhki, a soft drink and a bounty bar. Since I hadnt had breakfast it was pretty damn tasty actually. A couple of Russian traffic police came in while I was there and bought their lunch without even thinking about asking me for documents or looking at me as a source of alternative funding. Ahhh … its good to be back in proper Russia again.
So far, the only two dodgy police incidents have occurred in non-Russian republics with non-Russian officers. The second was yesterdays donation, but the first incident had occurred soon after I crossed into Karachaevo-Cherkessia about 4 days back. A 40 zone on the highway (for road repairs) required me to slam on the brakes and crawl along. I checked my speed on the GPS as I suspected something may be ahead. I was doing 37 km/h. A cop stepped out holding a radar gun, waved me over, and said I was doing 67 km/h. I was invited over to his car, but I insisted adamantly the whole time I was doing 37. Eventually he gave up, and gave me back my documents and let me go. I dont know if this is just that anti-corruption drives are more advanced in the Russian regions or because of cultural reasons, but so far, when it comes to the police officers, I will take the Russians every time thanks. Word of mouth has it that some other non-russian republics (Bashkortostan was mentioned on a travel forum recently) also have very bad reputations for dodgy police.
I love visiting the various nationalities in Russia (as this blog and my route show) but from what I have seen so far, the police in those regions are not as civil to travellers as those in Russian regions. its a pity as it does leave a small sour taste in the mouth and makes the solo motorcycle traveller feel a kind of sense of relief when he crosses back into Russia proper – it may not be as interesting, but it has a safer more civilised feel to it.
I filled up with fuel. My economy was the 2nd best of the trip. I had gone over 530 km on about 20 litres of fuel … it was 26 km / litre (3.8 l / 100km). From the fuel stop it would be 80km on minor sealed roads to Roshino, the last town in Stavropol Region, before another 70km to Terekli Mekteb in Dagestan … much of that distance would be a dirt track across the steppe. I was stopped by some police beside the highway, who started asking for my documents, then stopped and said , ‘ah you are the traveller yes?’ They said something about seeing television from Moscow about me or about ‘the traveller’ (puteshestvennik)? I didnt catch the full detail of what was said and I didnt ask for clarification because they gave me back my documents and waved me on my way. Strange.
30km after refuelling, I reached the town of Aga-Batir … the name suggesting I was approaching Nogai territory. I was stopped at a police checkpoint by the sole Russian officer manning the post and had me come into his office so he could note my details in his book. He was very friendly and even apologetic. But he was incredibly slow. He explained this by saying he had been manning that post for 20 years and I was the first foreigner he had seen go thru there. Well that was good enough for me. This trip is about taking new routes into this part of the world, so I forgave him for taking his time. One thing that puzzled me, when in his office, his computer screen was open for registration details, and had on it Tirnyauz – Terekli. Now I had told him when I stopped that I was headed for Terekli Mekteb, but how did he know I had come from Tirnyauz??? Did he know it in advance? The day was getting stranger.
Back on the road and the road to Roshino from Aga-Batir was deserted. It wasnt a bad road at all and I covered the 50km in under 30 minutes. I had been advised to tell the police in Roshino that I would be heading across the steppe, but damned if I could find them. Roshino was a sleepy dead end town if ever I saw one. I stopped to ask some locals where was the track across the steppe. I thanked them and went to restart the motorcycle, but the battery was flat ??? The locals tried to push start me several times, in first gear …nope, in 2nd gear … nope and not in 3rd gear either. the compression on the big 650 cc engine was too high and no matter what gear I as in the back wheel would just lock up. I remember trying to clutch start a BMW 650 in Bolivia a few years back … it was easier there with steep hills everywhere, but here the locals just couldnt get enough speed to make it happen. We pushed the bike 300 metres to a local who had battery charger. Within 30 seconds on the charger the bike started. I killed the engine and let the battery charge off the charger for 30 minutes. In that time all sorts of local yokels stopped by for a chat, including the local police and some very drunk unpleasant characters.
I was keen to get out of there and back on the road to Terekli. It was by now 4:30pm and I wanted to make sure I got the dirt track out of the way before dark. I said goodbye to the guys who helped me, ignored the jostling by the drunk locals and hit the road … or rather the track. It was a cool track, exactly what the bike and suspension are set up for. It wasnt graded, just a couple of wheel ruts through the dusty steppe land, but trucks used it and I passed one travelling in the opposite direction, at about 5km/h. On the bike, I was zipping along at 70 km/h, and in my excitment must have got a turn wrong somewhere or taken a wrong divergent track because when I finally stopped to look at my GPS, I had gone 20 km east and was now heading North. There was a road about 10 km further north of me so as long as I was heading North or East or anywhere in between I would hit it … I continued on. The next time I stopped to look at the GPS I realised I was now in Dagestan and only 2-3 km from the road. When the road came I was really disappointed. That 30 km or so I had done on the steppe track was the most fun I had had on the bike since the start of the trip.
It would take me less than half an hour on the sealed road to get to Terekli Mekteb, so I texted Jamal, the son of Abrek in Cherkessk, that I was 30 minutes away. Jamal was working in a bank in Terekli and said he would meet me. I figured I would just find the centre of town and text / call him again once I had arrived.
I was clearly in Nogai country now. The faces had that mongolic – turkic blend that is clearly Nogai. I passed a group of young Nogai lads fixing a broken motorcycle by the side of the road and chatted with them before realising I had people waiting for me in Terekli and continued on. On the outskirts of town I was waved over by a bunch of fairly official looking guys in a group that included about 5 cars. These werent police, they were a welcoming party that included the head of the local school, the local historian and the head of the bank that Jamal worked at.
A photo session followed, before I was taken to one guys house, showered, fed, and pampered, before being taken to another guys house where I was offered more food. All the while we were taking about the Nogai. I explained to them that people in the west have never even HEARD of the Nogai, let alone know anything about them, and if I could shed the tiniest bit of light about them outside of Russia, then I would be very happy to do so. This was the subject of many toasts. It was then decided that I must spend at least a day in Terekli where I would be shown the local museum etc etc. That was part of my plan anyway. It will be a good day for the video camera.
As it happens, my initial draft timetable had me arriving in Terekli Mekteb on this date. By accident rather than design, I am 100% on schedule.