Written by Callie
After reaching the Caspian Sea, we had to move quickly to exit Kazakhstan before our thirty-day visas expired. As per usual, Charlie’s Russian visa situation was more complicated than mine. Technically, when we were last in Russia, he had overstayed the 90-days-per-visit that he was allotted. To be on the safe side, he had applied for a ten-day transit visa, but now had to bus back to Uralsk, about 500 kilometers by road, to pick it up. By the time he rejoined me at the Caspian Sea in Atyrau, we had only two days to cover the 300 kilometers to the border.
We re-entered Russia with no problems, but were still feeling the time crunch as Charlie’s visa gave us 10 days to cover 1,000 kilometers. Our first real day on the road, I had a major blow-out on my rear tire; the explosive pop sounded like a car backfiring. We had to leave the bikes and take a bus to the next town, buy a new cheap tire, and bus back. Cheap tires would cause two more blow-outs, and of course multiple punctures, in the coming weeks.
Our route may seem a bit confusing at this point, as we had re-entered Russia. We were now tracing the Caspian coast through a thin strip of Russia, which contained the Buddhist region Kalmykia, and the Muslim region Dagestan. Kalmykia is the only majority Buddhist region in “Europe”, peopled by an Mongol people who migrated to the area from northwest China 400 years ago. Lenin’s paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk and it’s not hard to spot the Mongol blood in his face. However, during our transit we saw few Buddhist symbols, as our route through Kalmykia dragged us along a punishing dirt track with stretches of deep, soft sand.
The region of Dagestan is known for its independence struggle, with the nearby conflict from Chechnya often spilling over. Internationally, it seems to be viewed as a dangerous region due to Islamic insurgency and secessionist terrorism. However, it was in this region that we experienced the warmest hospitality in all of Russia. Our first day in Dagestan, we stopped at a café for lunch and a break from the 100+ degree heat. A man in the café, having lunch with his son, bought us potato pirozkhi, which are ubiquitous fast-food savory pastries. After we had finished our meal, the woman in the café set two ice creams in front of us, which she didn’t let us pay for. Even petrol station managers welcomed us in for coffee and to watch videos of the local, Dervish-esque dancing.
We made it to Azerbaijan in the required time, and headed straight for Baku, a day’s ride from the border. By this point, we were feeling extremely dusty and dirty. While kayaking, we had grown accustomed to frequent swims, sinking up to our chins in the water for a few minutes just to cool off. Now, after the sweltering days and dusty tracks, it was getting hard to fall asleep in the tent for how dirty and sticky we felt. The night before arriving in Baku, we had made a failed attempt at reaching the Caspian to bathe. We wheeled our bikes down a side track, past a disgusting chicken farm, until we were stopped by an unsurpassable irrigation ditch. In the dark, we decided to use the ditch to wash some dirt off as best we could. As it happened, the nearby oil derricks were spilling crude oil into the flowing water, and we ended up mostly dirtier than before with unsightly stains on our already unappealing clothes.
We decided to pass through Azerbaijan relatively fast, leaving more time to explore Georgia’s mountains, which we had both long wanted to visit. Nearing the Georgian border, we encountered our first cycle tourist, going the opposite direction. We hadn’t met many young tourists on our trip at all, as we had mostly been in the wilderness, and were eager to chat. We would soon find out that Georgia was full of cycle tourists, and we would see one or two almost every day from then on. In fact, cyclists rarely even stop to chat in Georgia.
It seemed that the landscape got immediately more beautiful as we entered Georgia, and our relief at being finally out of the grasp of Russian bureaucracy and authority deepened. (See our last blog for why this feeling turned out to be misplaced!) Mountains unrolled in front of us, and we stopped at a roadside café for beer and delicious Georgian food, which actually had flavour, something often lacking in the more utilitarian Russian cuisine. The next morning, at our first pit stop to fill our water bottles, we were invited for chai, bread, butter and fresh cheese. We reached Tbilisi that afternoon, and spent a few days wandering the cobbled streets and indulging in cold Georgian white wine. After six months of Russian lager, wine tasted so, so good. Buying bottles in the afternoon, and burying them under rocks in a cold river, would become a favorite evening tradition.
Leaving Tbilisi, we headed north for the town of Kazbegi, a 2,000 metre climb through stunning terrain, and the ski resort town of Gaudari. We pedaled uphill for two days, watching paragliders floating over the peaks as we approached the top of the pass. From the town of Kazbegi, it is a further 400 metres to Gergeti, the mountaintop monastery for which it is best known. There is a steep walking path, or a six-kilometer rutted, rocky road. After some cajoling from Charlie, I was convinced to cycle the road so that we could camp at the top. In my lowest gear, I had to stand up to pedal up all the steep parts, and upon the descent cringed as my cheap bicycle rattled down the rocky path. But, it was a gorgeous campsite, and we were cold for the first time in months.
The downside to this route was that it is a dead-end deep in the mountains. We scoured topographical maps, hoping for some way through the mountains so that we would not have to turn around and cycle back the same way. But, pushing bikes up and over 45 degree scree slopes seemed like a bad idea, and we turned around. We found out later that had we attempted our mountain scramble, we would have landed in South Ossetia. Again, see our previous blog for more on misadventures in South Ossetia, an illegally occupied region of Georgia.
After leaving the mountains, and following a route on Google Maps, we ended up, once again, arrested by the Russian border military. Charlie wrote a separate blog about this third clash with Russian authorities.
Once released “back into Georgia”, we headed into the mountains again, taking small paths to avoid main highways. We had some gorgeous climbs on a horrible, destroyed asphalt road, and a 30-kilometer descent that took us all morning due to the road condition. Then it was a cruisey ride into Batumi, a resort town on the Black Sea coast. After a few days of reading on beach chairs and swimming in the sea, we are ready to take on Turkey. We are now only 1,400 kilometers from our finish line. The route looks lovely, following the sea coast almost the entire way. It now truly feels like a vacation, and it’s hard to believe that most of our challenges have been overcome.
From the café I’m now sitting at, I have a view of the sea, and we are about to cross the final border for the trip, change our last currency, follow our last route. It’s all happening so quickly, but it also feels like an age since we set out onto the frozen tundra of Arctic Siberia, plodding into headwinds with frosted hair and freezing fingers.
Written by Charlie
Callie’s ailing brakes screeched as we clattered down the winding track towards a tarmac road. We were nearing the end of a shortcut to the Georgian city of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The main road had been loud and boring so we plugged the “avoid highways” option into Google maps and followed a string of village roads and rubbled farm tracks across some hills browning with autumn.
The heat and dust had formed a sweat-crusted paste on our skin by the time we reached the asphalt in a valley that gathered in the high Caucasus to our north and splayed into a plain just south of us. The route directed us a few miles north to where we would cross a bridge and then continue south on the other side of the valley.
It was late in the day and we’d cycled sixty miles of rough roads so planned to cross the valley and then camp, leaving the last 20 miles to Gori for the morning. However, as we neared the turning to the bridge, we found a police post. The Georgian officers spoke no English but informed us simply in Russian that the bridge was closed and we’d have to go around. Looking at the map, ‘going around’ would mean one of two things. Either cycling south, out of the hills and down to the highway which we would then follow to Gori. Or, pedalling back a mile or two, following a footpath of some sort down into the valley, crossing the river and arriving at the back road to Gori less than half a mile from where we left the road we were currently on. The former would both be boring and add twenty miles to our journey. We opted for the latter.
It didn’t take long to reach the river, plucking a few blackberries from brambles as we went. Although it would be a deluge in spring, the water was only ankle deep so we wheeled our bikes across and found a way up the other bank. A few minutes later we reached the deserted tarmac and began pedalling happily south. Seconds later a car roared up behind us and pulled over. Out jumped an army officer in uniform. It took a few seconds to recognise his fatigues and to spot the Russian flag on his arm. This both worried and confused me as we were a good fifty miles from the Russian border.
The man asked in pidgin English if we had passports and what we were doing. We replied that we were tourists on our way to Gori. He then asked why we had illegally crossed an international border. We protested. We were in Georgia and nowhere near Russia. He pointed at the ground and said two words: ‘South Ossetia’. He then led us two hundred yards further down the road to where a twisted stack of barbed wire coils barred the way and a Cyrillic sign announced the border of Georgia and the “Respublika Yojnaya Ossetia”. My heart sank. We were on the wrong side of it.
Somehow, through an incredible cocktail of ignorance and misfortune, we had missed the fences and guard towers and strayed unchecked into a disputed territory. South Ossetia has claimed independence since the Russian invasion of 2008. We had little choice but to obey the man and cycle away from the fence, deeper into the forbidden land towards a military base. The officer drove a couple of yards behind us while a khaki jeep manned by two heavily armed soldiers lead the way before us. We talked as we rode, getting our story straight, but unlike our previous arrests by Russian authorities, there was really nothing to hide this time. We had made an honest mistake.
Reinforced bollards sank mechanically into the tarmac at the gate to a smart new Russian compound, allowing us and our escort to enter. We were told to spread all our belongings onto a canvas sheet. I slipped my second passport into my shorts as it had a Russian visa I’d violated the terms of and possessing two passports in Russia is illegal. Everything was noted and photographed, one item at a time, photos were browsed on our phones, and there was particular interest in my laptop and video camera.
We were placed in a room watched over by the pitiless gaze of Putin’s portrait, his fish lips drooping at their edges in a cartoonish frown. We patiently went through the slow process of questioning, fingerprinting, being photographed, displaying all our belongings again, and then being further questioned with a briefcase-sized video camera thrust in our faces. Among the questions was the straightforward ask that must catch out so many: “are you a spy?”
There were long intervals where we were left to wait but we were never without guards. One of the soldiers correctly guessed that we might be hungry after cycling all day and fetched us tea, a cucumber, and a few bits of bread. We ate quickly and gratefully but were still famished. We had to sign in 19 places on lengthy Russian language documents detailing our offence.
During questioning we explained our ignorance of the border. I showed them the Google map on my phone on which (I now noticed) the border was marked as a faint dotted line and not the bold solid line of an international border. We had been picked up less than two hundred yards from the tip of a pointing finger of Ossetian land that jutted inconveniently into Georgia proper. An officer said America didn’t recognise the sovereignty of South Ossetia and that was why Google didn’t mark it as an independent country. I asked which countries did recognise it and they listed Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. I asked if Burkina Faso was also on board. They shook their heads in confusion. We questioned why they, The Russians, were fifty miles from their own territory policing the border of an apparently independent nation. They said the South Ossetians invited them to help protect their land after the Georgian army began bombing their villages in 2008. I did my best to stifle a scoff.
At midnight we were told we would have to go to the capital, Tskhinvali, to pay a fine. Our pleas to pay on the spot and be put back into Georgia were ignored. With the camera still rolling, we were lead outside and our laden bikes were loaded into a grey soviet minivan. While climbing in, I noticed that the driver and his companion were wearing different uniforms and speaking an unfamiliar language. We had been handed over to the South Ossetians.
Almost an hour of hopelessly rutted farm tracks took us to a village where we stopped outside a walled compound. We remained in the van. A couple of men came out and asked repeatedly in Russian to see our valuables. We feigned incomprehension, feeling certain that anything we produced would not find its way back to us. An unofficial nighttime pitstop in a small village while under arrest in a rogue nation seemed just the place to be permanently relieved of our possessions. Disappointed, the men eventually gave up and our guards climbed back in. One of the two men reached in the window and yanked my foot off the seat, calling me a ‘pig’ in English as he did so.
It was 2am when we reached the police headquarters in Tskhinvali. Our hunger was outweighed by fatigue and so we were less phased than we might otherwise have been when shown to a cell and locked in. We stretched out on the narrow bed-cum-benches and went to sleep. A guard escorted us to the toilet at 7am but we were not allowed to close the door while using it and were ushered straight back to our cell. The room wasn’t especially unpleasant and had natural light from a large window, albeit heavily barred. There was a single book in the room: a Russian history of the CIA and the KGB.
By 9.30am we were extremely hungry and thrilled when a police officer led us upstairs to another room where we were given tea and fried bread. An hour later the familiar lengthy process of questioning began. The Ossetians were both less friendly and less professional than their Russian counterparts. They searched my phone extensively, even reading messages and emails, but failed to spot on the documents compiled by the Russians that Callie had a phone too. She simply denied owning one. My second passport was still hidden in my shorts. When they asked to see footage from my video camera, I gave them a blank memory card which they took away to inspect but seemed satisfied when they handed it back. I was asked to switch on my laptop and so simply logged onto it as a guest, handing them a seemingly unused computer.
We really had nothing to hide but knew they would try to be thorough and handing them an unorganised warren of computer files would slow down our processing and delay us getting back into Georgia. It was a Friday and we were already into the afternoon. I guessed correctly that not being processed before the close of business would mean being locked up for the weekend. At 3pm we were driven to the courtroom and stood before a judge. Both he and the translator seemed amused by our appearance. We were still unshowered and wearing sportswear. Their levity seemed to irritate the stern police officer who had been dealing with us.
We were not offered a lawyer and, in fact, hadn’t been offered a phone call since being detained. However, we admitted guilt and explained our ignorance. We were found guilty and issued a $35 fine. When the judge asked if I had anything to say I replied meekly that I was hungry. He turned to the police officer and scolded him for not feeding us. We were driven back to the station by the now ever sterner officer and given some plov (an Uzbek dish of rice, meat and vegetables). The officer then led me on foot to the bank to exchange dollars into rubles, and then to a government office to pay our fine. Then it was back to the cell. We were told we would be driven the two miles to the nearest Georgian border at 6.30pm. We slept again.
The drive was in another Soviet minivan. The border was clearly not open for public passage and a group of six soldiers marched us between sturdy concrete defenses into no man’s land where several signs announced unexploded ordinance. A couple of Georgian soldiers and a plainclothes man approached and nodded perfunctorily at the Ossetians who took a few steps back. The plainclothes man smiled and reached out a hand.
“Welcome back guys. My name’s Giorgi. I’m from the Ministry of the Interior. Are you OK?”
We said we were fine and he led us down the road to a waiting group including representatives from the police, the EU Monitoring Mission, and both the British and U.S. embassies. We were deeply embarrassed but all were the model of professionalism, expressing concern for our wellbeing and explaining that we would be doing them a favour if we accompanied them to the Gori police station for a quick debrief. Naturally we said we’d do whatever they wanted. During the fifteen minute drive Giorgi referred repeatedly to our “illegal detention”.
We made a statement in the police station to a friendly officer and translator who winced with indignation at various points. The Russian occupation of South Ossetia is a still-fresh wound in the Georgian psyche. The Russian officer’s claim to have been invited in to protect against Georgian aggression was the deepest cut.
The five days of war in 2008 didn’t just see the Russians and South Ossetians destroy all ethnic Georgian villages in the territory creating 20,000 refugees, it also saw Russia occupy and bomb sites throughout the rest of Georgia. Although the international community later condemned Russia’s actions and refused to recognise South Ossetia’s independence, during the fighting the world looked away, mostly to Beijing where the 2008 olympics were underway. No punitive action was ever taken towards Russia.
At 11pm we left the police station, checked into a hostel, and hurried to a supermarket. The experience had been interesting in parts, but mostly boring and hunger-filled.