From Russia with love

IMG_0437IMG_0439DSC00219 DSC00224 DSC00229 DSC00232 DSC00233 DSC00236 DSC00239 DSC00241 DSC00244 DSC00248 DSC00249 DSC00251 DSC00252I’d been warned that the Russian border crossing could be the longest and after nearly 2 hours just getting out of Azerbaijan i wasn’t looking forward to it. Fortunately neither of us are called James Bond so getting into Russia was pretty quick at just over 2 hours, but in 35 c heat I was glad to get through.

The border staff are just doing their duty and were incredibly helpful. Most of the forms are in English with the exception of one and one of the guards went out of his way to go through it step by step with us in English, top man, I hope he gets promoted and a pay rise.

The customs officer warned us “Do not lose this form, it is very important”

Standard questions about the bikes, where we are going, welcome to Russia, and where do you come from?

Inevitably when we say Manchester, the response is “Manchester United”   Trying to explain to explain I’m a Sunderland fan just confuses the matter so for the purposes of border crossings I’m now a big Manchester United fan.

Reminds me of being in Africa when the response was always the same “Manchester United” or “Wayne Rooney” with the one exception when I got the reply “Oasis, Liam Gallagher” What a refreshing change.

Over the border and off to Derbent in Dagestan which is one of the Russian Republics to find a hotel.

Dagestan and it’s neighbour Chechnya have had a troubled past with much conflict and an edgy reputation so this could be interesting. We struggled finding a hotel as the sta nav took us to a derelict building. Eventually we found a nice hotel right on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

The next morning I wanted to change the remainder of my Azerbaijan money only to find the banks will only change US dollars or Euro’s. Outside the bank the bikes were as always surrounded by curious on lookers. I asked if anyone would change the money and one guy said it can be done “unofficially” in the market and that he would drive me there. Ian stayed with the bikes whilst I prepared to get kidnapped by the locals. He drove like all the locals do, like a complete nutter with his hand on the horn all the time in a manner that puts any English cabbie or white van man to shame.

At he market he jumps out with my money and I’m left with his mate. I’d calculated what I should get officially and guess that I’ll get substantially less due to the nature of the transaction. Much to my surprise he returned with nearly double the official rate and wouldn’t accept a tip. Not only him but virtually all of the Chehens and Russians were so helpful and almost get offended when you offer them a tip.

Our new mate Jamie Duncan from BIKE magazine who we’d met in Georgia subsequently stayed in Makhachkala the capital of Dagestan a few nights later and though he has travelled all over the world commented that it was the edgiest place he’s ever been to and that he’s never seen so many guns. During daylight it was fine but as the sun went down virtually everyone over the age of 17 seemed to be carrying a gun including his hotel manager. The police checkpoints ring the city but police were absent within the city. He decided to stay in his bedroom but at 10 pm the hotel manager knocked hiom up and politely requested he move his bike from the front of the hotel to the rear as it was attarcting too much attention. He also said 2 of his friends would watch the bike all night from the dodgy block of flats behind.

Maybe we were lucky in Derbent or maybe we made a good call just staying in the hotel that night as Derbent certainly isn’t a tourist destination at the moment.

We headed for Grozny in Chechnya next to pick up some tyres that our mate Lyndon Poskitt had left for us. A couple of things we noticed were that the drivers in this region are completely insane and will overtake absolutely anywhere. Rules of the road just don’t exist. Also there seemed to be endless police checkpoints and searches though once the police realised we were tourists they just waved us through or had a polite and curious chat about the bikes as bikes seem rare in this area.

Entering Chechnya reminded me of Northern Ireland in the 1980’s with reinforced block houses, barbed wire and stingers blocking the road, plus soldiers with machine guns and even a snipers rifle. Smile sweetly and don’t upset this lot.

The centre of Grozny the Chechan capital is all brand new as it must have been flattened in the fighting. Despite having once been told never upset a Chechan and their history of fueding, everybody was so helpful and interested wherever we stopped. The kids made you feel like a local hero turning up on these bikes. I’d like to have spent more time there but we needed to get off and head north.

We rattled off a couple of hundred more miles until we got to what looked like a reasonable size town on the map where we thought we’d get a hotel. WRONG, the nearest hotel was a 100 miles away so we thought we’d just rough camp as it was now dark. We rode down some sandy tracks for a few miles looking for a place to camp out of sight of the track but no luck as it was all so flat we couldn’t hide our tents anywhere plus whenever we stopped the palce was infested with flies. Then we saw headlights coming the other way and a very irate Russian started screaming abuse at us so we scarpered quickly.

We went back to the 24 hour petrol station who’d told us “No hotels for 100 miles” I asked if we could put the tents up at the petrol station and got a rather disapproving look, so got down on my knees and did my best to make them understand we we knackered and desperate. This brought a smile to their faces and they relented. tents were up, Ian had his chair and I built a seat out of 2 big rocks and a piece of wood. The petrol station had cold beer and we feasted on chocolate and biscuits much to the amusement of all the customers coming in for fuel that night. This place was also mosquito city so we dosed ourselves in repellant and sat there in our bike gear.

However during the night I got out of the tent for a quick pee. I must have been McDonalds for Mosquito’s and got bitten to death. The clever little buggers must have known man, plus beer means midnight call of nature as in the morning I  found I’d been bitten to death in that short space of time on all the parts I hadn’t covered in repellant the night before when I had clothes on!

The next morning we thought we’d have a look down the sandy tracks we’d ridden the night before and found out the reason for Mr Angry last night. There were signs up, in fact the only signs we’d seen anywhere in English as well as Russian saying “Keep Out, Restricted Secuirty Zone”   I’m sure that would have gone down great if we had camped there and would have resulted in a visit from the police or worse.

It was baking hot again across the dusty arid plain and topped 40c. Look here Mother Russia, I’m from Manchester so I’m not used to sunshine and more than a tepid 15c.  I felt like I was sat in a giant micro wave oven on full power with the school bully kicking sand in my face scratching away at a million mossie bites. Suddenly watching Ewan and Charley doing it on TV was more appealing than the real thing. I love a good whinge, anyway this is living the dream. The dream got an awful lot better when we got to the big city of Astrakahn and checked into a lovely air conditioned hotel where we could scrub up and wash some clothes.

It was here that we met up with Jamie from Bike magazine for another night of frivolity and the picture of the giant mixed grill.

The next morning we had breakfast at a very leisurely 9.30 then came out to be accosted by idiot number 2 of the trip. A very drunken Russian bear who dwarfed Ian and myself put together who was necking vodka like it was his last day.

“Come here my friend” he said in English, gave me a huge bear hug, crushing hand shake and a slap round the back that almost snapped my spine.

“Are you German?” No “Good I don’t like Germans” he said  Hmm I won’t ell him my mum was Geramn then

“Are you American?” No “Good I don’t like Americans” he said.

“English……and how many people did you lose in the war and do you know how many Russians died in the war?”

The bar man rolled his eyes and shook his head behind Boris the angry bears back.

I explained I had my hair to do and a manicure appointment and Ian and myslef beat a hasty retreat as this conversation was going nowhere but trouble.

When we came back down later the barman told us Boris wasn’t a resident and that he’d called in for a few more drinks, then driven off even though he could barely stand!

Suffice to say that he is only the second objectionable person we’ve met so far and the vast majority of people have been incredibly tolerant of our lack of multiple languages and amazingly friendly.

Time to get off to Kazakhstan and cross the wierd and wonderful floating metal bridge over the mighty Volga river. Borat here we come.

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