After a quick few days in Georgia we were ready to finally make our first crossing into Russia. The northern border of Georgia is very mountainous and quite fortified due to the recent war with Russia. We approached the border via the old Georgian Military road and we stopped for breakfast in a small town called Stepantsminda just before the border crossing. I took this opportunity to ride up the off road track to the ancient Gergeti Trinity Church that sits high above the road and take some pictures.
We entered the border in the afternoon and cleared it in a few hours after being checked by the Russian border security. On leaving the border you can somehow tell you are in Russia due to the large mountains, pine trees and wide, fast flowing rivers. After a sort ride we arrived at our first Russian town and lay over for the night, Vladikavkaz. Vladikavkaz is an old Soviet era town featuring overgrown verges and Eastern Bloc tenements and has a great shabby chic kind of feel. We popped on the evening for dinner and then in the morning we got a taxi into the centre to get sim cards before we attempted to head North up towards the Kazakh border.
Due to the Georgian borders proximity to the warring Chechnya and Dagestan we had planned to avoid both these areas and stay West along the black sea before turning East to Kazakhstan. However this was not to be due to a number of different circumstances. As we left Vladikavkaz around mid morning we headed North West towards the Black Sea and in the completely opposite direction of Chechnya. After around 30 minutes on the highway we came to a stop as the whole road was being dug up and they redirected us back to Vladikavkaz. We spent a while looking at the satnav and the only other possible road for us was North which shouldn’t be an issue as we would be still skirting around Chechnya. So we began North from Vladikavkaz towards a town called Mozdok.
On this route everything started out well and we passed through small Russian towns until the road narrowed and became a little rougher and we began climbing a hill. On rounding the top of the first hill we came across a Russian checkpoint where we were stopped and our passports taken by a couple of sketchy looking soldiers. They kept crossing their arms and gesturing that it was a no go to pass through the checkpoint but we couldn't speak any Russian and they could not speak any English. The guard that had my passport kept leaning in closely and opening the passport with his finger and with the other hand making the gesture on rubbing money together and placing it in the passport. I shook my head and said I had no money but he was quite persistent until he noticed I had a camera recording on my helmet and he looked very shocked! At this moment however the commandant came out from the shack ad both the guards stood bolt upright. The commandant let us pass but not before inviting us into his hut for some tea!
Again we were moving through the hills on this rough old tarmac road and before long we decided it was time to make camp so we pulled off up a farm track and headed up a fairly steep dirt hill climb to get high up and out of the way. The woods on the hill were dense and on finding a small clearing away from the track we set up camp and made dinner. During the night as we tried to sleep we could hear dogs barking and the sound of a four wheel drive driving around. At one point it came up the track near where we were camping and stopped! After a minute or two it moved on but we didn’t sleep too well that night!
In the morning we were up really early due to the bad sleep and we packed up the gear and headed North on the same rough tarmac road. After about 30 minutes we came up to another checkpoint but this one had dogs and the guards were quite angry and said we should not be there in broken English. Again with the language barrier we couldn’t really understand them and after checking our passports and making a call they finally let us head North again. By this point we were quite confused but happy that we were on our way again and the road opened up into a larger road lined by large fields. After another 30 minutes we arrived on the outskirts of a town and very quickly we ran into the third checkpoint!
However this one was much larger and had many soldiers with machine guns and we were told to park our bikes and follow the soldiers into a courtyard. There we were told that they were not actually just normal soldiers and showed us their FSB patches. The FSB is Russia’s secret police and any involvement with them is a bad idea! They told us we were in a lot of trouble and could be deported as we had entered a closed Russian military airbase. At first In my head I thought these guys are trying to get money out of us as I hadn’t read about any closed military base here but at that moment a huge HIP helicopter gunship flew over our heads! Turns out we had camped the night in some kind of demilitarised zone and that could have been the Russian army looking for us in the dark!
We swiftly found out that Mozdok is the largest Airbase in the South of Russia and is specifically tasked with monitoring Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia and was the Russian military headquarters In the recent conflicts. Foreigners are not supposed to be there so we were given a stern warning and a fine of 5000 rubles each (roughly 50gbp) before being escorted West by the Police.
They left us at the town limits and we were forced to go due East, directly towards the capital of Chechnya, Grozny! After about 10 minutes though Jenny noticed a car driving very aggressively behind us and overtaking all of the cars behind us. It was another Police car! We decided to stop and await the arrival of the fine but it was the guards for the Mozdok checkpoint. They still had both of our passports! The guard was s happy to give them back to Jenny that he gave her a hug. Reunited with our passports we nervously entered into the unknown Chechnya!
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