Category Archives: Dagestan

The Kalmyks

26.04.09, late at night … Elista, Kalmykia

Today began with my repeating several times to Shamil, my host in Terekli Mekteb that I only had time to do two things today before hitting the road. (1) was to see ‘Mama Rosa’ the mother of Abrek and Irina from Cherkessk, as I had promised and (2) was to go to a metal worker and do some minor repairs to one of my saddle bags. I was aware of the way the Nogai hospitality worked. Both in Cherkessk and now in Terekli Mekteb, there was a tendency to impose a schedule and a plan onto the guest. I had been frustrated by Akhmed in Cherkessk for not listening to or attending to the few things I needed to do, but instead doing what he wanted us to do, and I hoped that could be avoided in Terekli Mekteb by repeatedly saying that I needed to be on the road by 11 am, I had a 8 hour ride to Elista ahead and I only had time to do 2 things in the morning.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. It was 11am by the time Zaur, the military commander of the region arrived in his land cruiser to drive us around. But instead of driving us around to sort the panniers, and despite having had breakfast an hour earlier, we all sat down for more tea and food and chat. When we finally got moving, we didnt go to visit Mama Rosa, but instead went to visit a friend who worked with hides. They wanted to show me what happens to all the sheep hides and offered me a sheepskin for the bike. Then we eventually made it to Mama Rosa’s place about 12:30pm.

Next I thought we were going to get my bags fixed at the towns master metal worker, one of the guys who was with us yesterday and had promised to fix the bags first thing Sunday morning, But instead, we hit the road and went to the cowboy town on Kunbatar, as I had mentioned it was on my route. All my gear had been thrown into the back of the jeep and I was just wearing my jeans and sneakers as I thought we were riding around town getting my tasks done. I stopped 5km out of town and waited for the land cruiser to return … ‘Where are we going?’ I asked … ‘we are supposed to be getting my baggage fixed.’
‘No time for that, we will do it in Kunbatar’ was the reply.

We got to Kunbatar, with me following a jeep load of senior guys from Terekli Mekteb down a dusty dirt track, with most of my riding gear and all my baggage in the back of their land cruiser. We asked around for a metal worked but of course in a one horse cowboy town there was none. It was only 30 km from Terekli Mekteb and anyone with anything to do just went to Terekli.

We settled on a house where a guy said he had a son who could fix anything. OK… So the guys gets out a primitive drill and prepares to drill through my whole bag on his veranda. I stopped him and made it clear that its only the metal support rail and plastic rail that need to be drilled. I left him with it while I sorted out all my baggage from the back of the jeep and got dressed into riding gear. All he had to do was drill one hole and put a bolt through it.

In my full riding hit, it was now pretty damn hot in the steppe sun. Temperatures were probably around 15 degrees, but the sun and the 4 layers I had on made it hot. Once I was dressed I went to check the repair work on the sick side bag. I don’t know what the guy had done, but whatever it was it didn’t look right. I obviously wanted a proper job, but I wasn’t paying for it so how do I complain?? I looked at Nikita, one of the guys in the Land cruiser party and the towns I.T. guy (meaning he spoke a tiny bit of English) and screwed up my face as if to say ‘what the hell is this?’. He looked back at me shrugged his shoulders and said ‘don’t worry, he says its fixed OK’.

What could I do? I took the bag back, packed it up, and loaded up the bike. Why had we not gone to Adjo, Terekli’s metal worker, and had a proper job done? Getting the job done out by a cowboy out in the boonies is surely no quicker than getting the job done properly in a workshop in town. Instead of me saddling up and riding out of there, our posse of 6 guys was now invited into the house for tea and food. I politely declined and said I had to hit the road, but was told, ‘please, its our tradition – to thank them for the repair work.’

I sighed and reluctantly went in for more tea and food. After 30 minutes, facing more hints of staying longer, I just stood up and prepared to go, saying thank yous as I left. It was now 3pm. I had a dodgy bag repair and 8 hours ahead of me on roads that I had chosen because they would be “interesting”. It was a bit of a frustrating end to my time with Nogai people .. a people I had developed a real soft spot for. For the second time I actually left people I like feeling relieved that I was leaving. Sweet, sweet freedom. Hospitality is great, but nothing beats freedom. I guess thats why I love this motorcycle travel thing.

The landcruiser led me to the dusty edge of Kunbatar and ahead was just a couple of wheel ruts heading north across the steppe. I said my farewells to a quality bunch of guys but needed the freedom that the steppe ruts promised me. I sped off without looking back.

It was 40km across nothingness to the next habited place, Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk. I flew across the ground in quick time, following the compass and instinct when the tracks divided. It was a great fun road and my spirits were lifted by focussing on riding instead of the frustrating day I had had prior to saddling up. I stopped on the outskirts of Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk, as i found an asphalt road, but one so bad that everyone, myself included, obviously preferred the dusty sandy tracks at the side of the road rather than the road itself. When i stopped, I saw was I was half expecting to see (but perhaps not so soon), the repair work on the side bag had completely come undone. With the benefit of zip ties, I did a patch job by the side of the dusty track. One way or another I would be in Elista tomorrow and get it fixed properly.

Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk was probably the grimmest town I have passed through on this trip so far. On the North-West frontier of Dagestan, it was the sort of town that everyone wants to leave. At least there was a decent road heading out of town. The steppe around here was so flat that any building was visible 20 km or more before you got there, silhouetted against the horizon. I left Dagestan and re-entered Stavropol Region. The sun was getting lower now and in a town called Turksad I stopped to check directions to the dam that separated Stavropol Region form Kalmykia. While there I noticed that I needed further repairs on my dodgy baggage if I was to get to Elista. While at the petrol station doing my repairs and chatting to the Russian woman behind the counter, a group of Dargin locals came in and began hassling me. The Dargin are another group common in Dagestan. Turksad seemed to have a decent sized Dargin population. Eventually the Russian lady yelled abuse at them and they left. I asked the Russian lady, who had been very civil, are all the locals here like that? She was originally from Moldova but came here to marry her husband 18 years ago. ‘The Russians are fine’ she said, ‘but the Dargins are a real problem’. I had kinda already seen that.

The road from Turksad to the dam was marked as a decent road on my Russian road atlas but was in fact another 2 wheel rut track. It was 40km of potential fun before entering Kalmykia, but the fun I had on that track was tempered by having to stop every 10 km to do more zip tie repair work on my ailing baggage.

Since Bulgaria, when the first part of my baggage broke on my simple fall crossing the railway tracks, i have realised that my hope of doing this trip with the ultralight bicycle luggage was in fact too optimistic. The plastic attachments are simply not durable enough to deal with the stresses of motorcycle travel (and falls). As it happens, I also have a set of Ortlieb motorcycle luggage at home and will get that sent out to me with Tony, when I meet him in Siberia in about 5 weeks time. The bicycle luggage only needs to hold up till then.

The sun went down during my ride to the isolated, deserted dam, and by the time I got there it was almost dark. I expected a concrete road across the 10km long dam, but instead there was a rutted dirt track. It was a challenge in the near darkness, but there was no point stopping here in the middle of the steppe. I could camp, but I didnt trust the water here. 2/3 of the way across the dam I came across a lonely checkpoint with a chain across the track. This was the Kalmyk border and I shut the bike down and had a chat with the 2 Kalmyk police in the tiny hut. Not surprisingly, I was the only foreigner they had ever seen there.

If the Nogai have one of the most interesting histories in the region, then the Kalmyk’s have one of the most bizarre – and fascinating.

Like many of the people in the region, the Kalmyk story starts in Mongolia. However, unlike most, the story does not start with Genghis Khan. The Kalmyks began as a Mongolian group called the Oirat, who like many groups originating in Mongolia, (such as Attila’s Hun and Genghis’ Mongols) headed west in search of bounty and new grasslands, the Kalmyks doing so around the 1600s. The Kalmyk were known as a very warlike people (as most conquering hordes usually have to be) and took northern Kazakhstan before moving in on the original Nogai homeland around Astrakhan. By 1700, the Kalmyks had pushed the Nogai south into what is now Dagestan and established a Kalmyk homeland on the Steppe area around their capital Elista. Unlike many of the other Mongolic groups that have swept through this area, the Kalmyks have not mingled with turkic Kipchaks and other steppe nomads, but have remained remarkably ethnically pure. I recall reading that the Kalmyks are the closest genetically to the Mongols of all people, including the Buryats just to the North of Mongolia.

Back to the story …and back on the road, and I stopped in the village of Iki-Burul about 9pm to grab a few litres of petrol. They didn’t have the grade I wanted so I just grabbed enough 93 octane to get me to Elista. I would happily have stopped for the night there too, but there were no hotels, and my efforts to fish for a bed for the night by putting my puppy dog face on and asking the locals if they knew anywhere to stay for the night didn’t work. I was unanimously told to head for Elista where I would find hotels. I met 3 more police in Iki-Burul, and to my surprise 2 of them spoke pretty good English.

I arrived in Elista about 10:30pm … still shaking my head at not being able to hit the road till 3pm. I had the name of a modern hotel in the centre of Elista, and though it would cost me EUR 50 a night, I decided I deserved it. And besides, my accommodation bill since arriving in Russia had been a paltry 15 EUR … 8 EUR for the hotel in Elbrus and 7 EUR for one in Kammenomostsky. The rest had been gratis.

– – –
27.04.2009, Elista

I awoke in Elista’s finest hotel keen to get the bikes baggage sorted, see the sights of Elista, and get some internet time to update the blog, edit the photos pay some bills etc etc etc. I emptied out the side bags, stuck them on the bike and rode the 3 blocks to the very centre of town. Elista looks like a part of Asia but with a clear sky background that could be the US Midwest or Australian outback. Its bizarre. The post communist architecture definitely has a touch of Buddha’s influence about it. I wanted to get some footage of people spinning a prayer wheel in the centre of town, but everyone became shy when I was up there with camera, so I approached a bunch of students and asked them if they would volunteer and turn the wheels as a favour.

They were a bunch of 5 university students around 20 years old, led by Sasha (a Kalmyk), with 4 girlfriends in tow (3 Kalmyks and one Kazakh) … actually I think one was his girlfriend and the others classmates. We chatted for a while and then they decided to skip their english class and show me the Hurul, Elista’s main Buddhist temple, and the largest in Europe. Quite an amazing sight, this brightly coloured temple in the middle of this steppe city. The Dalai Lama was here 2 years ago, but future visits are less likely. The Chinese have been pressuring the Russians not to give him a visa anymore. The Russians have huge commercial interests in China going forward (Russia being one of the largest suppliers of oil, gas,and raw materials in the world and China being the biggest consumer), and weighing up giving the Dalai a visa or keeping the Chinese happy its pretty clear which side they will come down on.

I will put more photos of the students and other faces around Elista in the photos section.

I had to sort out my bags and Sasha made a few phone calls. He told me to go to Elista Lada, a Lada workshop just down the road. I rode in and a guy waved me over. Turns out he was a biker. Zhenya took me into the worlshop, I explained what I needed done and he began doing it. Professional, proper tools, job done on the side bags. Of course there was no payment wanted for the hour or so he put into it, but instead he asked me to join him and some other bikers in Elista this evening. I am looking forward to that.

Having mentioned how the Kalmyks got to Europe earlier, I might as well follow up with a bit more modern history. Lenin himself was part Kalmyk … one of his grandmothers was a Kalmychka. You might think this would give the Kalmyks a special place in the Soviet heirarchy, but no. During the second world war, Stalin suspected the Kalmyks of collaborating with the Germans as they advanced across the Steppe towards the oilfields of Chechnya and decided to exile the lot of them to Siberia – Ethnic cleansing if ever it existed. Up to a half of Kalmyks are thought to have died during the transportation by cattle wagon, from starvation or from cold, and it wasn’t till Stalin died that Khruschev permitted them to return to Kalmykia. The date the order to exile to Kalmyks was signed (and to liquidate the Kalmyk Republic), 28th December (1943), is the now the most solemn date in the Kalmyk calendar.

The Kalmyk Republic is the only Buddhist region in Europe and its president is a former very highly ranked international chess player, who loves holding major international chess tournaments in Elista – the middle of nowhere. Perhaps as a result of having a strategic thinking president, the Kalmyks seems very well educated and what I have seen of Elista is a notable step forward in terms of modernity compared with surrounding regions – and its considerably cleaner too. The President will have his hands full tho building the Kalmyk economy – Kalmykia is 100% steppe, with very little in the way of natural resources and its small population (less than 1 million) is hardly enough to encourage economies of scale.

– – –

Zhenya came round to the hotel at 8pm with a couple of other bikers, and we headed off to their meeting place, a quiet spot just off the main road on the western edge of town. The others had all eaten but I hadn’t, so immediately we zoomed thru town (there is only one main road) to the eastern edge of town and a shashlik cafe called Sem-Ya. These guys were the first bikers I had met since Crimea. Bikes were mostly sports bikes with a couple of Japanese cruiser bikes in there too. Adventure bikes are not really popular in Russia, tho the head honcho of the club had a bizarre beaten up old Tenere, that had been lowered and decked out so that it resembled a cross between a Tenere and a chopper.

The Kalmyks have their own version of tea … Kalmyk Chai or Khan Chai … Khan refering to Ogodei Khan, Genghis’ successor. This was the tastiest variation on tea I had tried so far on the trip. Recommended ! There is a fair bit of Genghis memorabilia about. Traditional Kalmyk leather wallets I saw in a souvenir shop have a portrait of Genghis stamped into them. I am a bit of an afficionado of all things Genghis, but am surprised to see the Kalmyks identifying so closely with the great man. It seems depite leaving Mongolia a long time ago, the Kalmyks are still proud of their Mongol heritage and very much identify with it.

The Nogai seem to have a ambiguous relationship with their Mongol roots. The Nogai guys I met insisted they are only 5% Mongol blood and 95% Kipchak … but watching video clips of Nogai singers, singing Nogai songs, and the overwhelming background of the filmclips were taken from movies or documentaries of Genghis Khan. They love the image the mongol’s convey, but seem to not be comfortable admitting they have mongol ancestry. I found that a bit strange. The Kalmyks have no such ambiguity.

The Nogai

25.04.09, Terekli Mekteb, Dagestan

Internet is a little tough from here … its kinda done by GPRS … someone connects a mobile phone to a computer and internet access happens that way.  I have had trouble uploading photos … bear with me.  I should have proper internet access tomorrow night and will upload pics from the last 2 pic-less posts.

There was no motorcyling to be done today, so I sat back and let my group of hosts, predominantly Shamil and Begali, run the day.  I didnt really know what was in store but thought I would just go with the flow.

The day started with a visit to the village of Nariman, just 5km or so from Terekli Mekteb.  One of the gang looking after me had arranged a school visit.  Russian schools work 6 days a week, but only 4-5 hours a day.  So despite it being a Saturday, the school was in.  For me faces are a great thing to photograph.  There is a lot to read in an interesting face and I decided to take a lot of pictures of faces.  For a lot more detail, see the photos section.  I will upload a bunch of Nogai faces, but only will have a couple here on the blog.

Of particular interest at the school was a class doing national studies …national meaning Nogai.  All the Nogai kids in Nariman learn 3 languages – Nogai, Russian and English.  It was encouraging as to be honest I had hardly encountered any english speakers since entering the former soviet union.  The hotel receptionist in Kerch was about the only one I can remember.  It’s a complete contrast to Moscow where just about everyone seems to speak English.  Thats what you get for going to less visited areas.  Its been testing (and probably quite good) for my Russian but it does get tiring as I never get the chance to switch the brain off and communicate in English … except on this blog.

In the national studies class, some boys were doing woodwork, another kid was playing the national instrument, a 2 stringed guitar thingy called a dombra, and a class of girls turned their english lesson into a chat about motorcycling around the world.  Not sure if I won any converts about to boost adventure motorcycle sales, but I got some great video of the kid playing the dombra and some fotos of the classes.

Next, a bunch of the senior guys in town rustled up assorted cars, food and drink and took me out to a place sacred to the Nogai.  About 35 km from Terekli Mekteb, in the middle of absolutely nowhere is a small clump of rare trees.  Thats pretty rare out on the steppe / dune country around the Nogai land in itself, but these trees have special properties, or at least they do for the Nogai.  The air under the trees smells different to the surrounding air – its a cleaner, fresher feel.  And apparently its always cool under these trees, even when its 50 degrees outside, as it in in Summer.  But theres more.  Apparently the air under the trees cures illnesses too.  One of the guys told me he brought his son there when he had bronchitis, sat him under the tree for a few hours while they played cards, and he was cured.

I dont know about all that stuff, but it was an honour to be taken to a place that is central to their identity.  A fire was started and food prepared.  It was a genuine Nogai barbeque, out there in the dunes of Dagestan.  As we prepared to eat, 2 young Nogai cowboys came riding in, having just caught and bridled a wild mustang.  No-one knew them (they were from a nearby farm) but they were invited to join the feast, while a few of the older hands helped tame the wild horse.

A lamb was produced (from where  I dont know) and butchered on the spot to help satiated the barbeques appetite.  I was apparently still the guest of honour and had to politely turn down the traditional honour of cutting the sheep’s throat. I had eaten enough anyway and wandered off to photograph the emptiness of the dunes that lay between the Nogai country and Chechnya.  Chechnya was only 3-4 km away but there was nothing that cound be seen for at least 15 km around, apart from one small farm 6-7 km away.  It was a lovely desolate spot in the wilderness.

Kavkaz – Part 3

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 ( 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.