So begins our 3rd bike motorcycle ride in Russia. We’ve ridden both edges of this massive country the north to south and now we get to ride across it. So nice to be back and despite a bit of a laborious border crossing from Georgia, once in Vladikavkaz (capital of North Ossetia) the hospitality was rolled out and the locals couldn’t do enough for us. Organising our sim cards, bike insurance and accoms for the first night was topped off by the presentation of a 1.5L bottle of fine wine from a complete stranger. What a place – this is the Russia we have grown to love over the many miles of riding here in the past. Genuine people who can’t do enough for you. We’re so lucky to be back.
Our initial goal is to get into South Ossetia, which being an enclave in the Great Caucuses is bound to be gobsmackingly beautiful. But the omens aren’t good – this is an area where the conflicts between the various ethnic groups are either recent or current. The Caucasian countries and the Caucasian Republics of Russia all tend to be defined along ethnic lines and tensions manifest themselves in many ways. Our Vladikavkaz welcome was made pretty special by Julia, a motorcycling medical practitioner from Moscow who approached on the street us as were puzzling over getting the various chores done that you need to when arriving in a new country. Julia had just been told she couldn’t visit Georgia on a motorcycle because she was Russian. She could bus in or even drive a car, but not a motorcycle. So the goal of her ride down here was thwarted.
Similarly we found out we couldn’t ride into South Ossetia without first getting a letter of invitation from the SO Consulate in Vladikavkaz, and that would take 3 to 4 days. So instead we turned east leaving the Orthodox Christian area of Russia’s Northern Caucuses and heading into the Sunni Muslim Republics of Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. From them we would reach the Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia. I’m not aware of anywhere else in the world you can do the Christian-Muslim-Buddhist traverse so quickly.
These Muslim Republics are all supposedly no-go areas of Russia according to the travel advisory world of Western governments – primarily because of the crime rates, kidnapping etc that are high because of the decades of ethnic tensions. But we’re interested, so so long as they’ll let us we will visit.
The Caucuses are such a beautiful part of the world – a mountain range that is stunning with all manner of valleys and villages to explore that simply don’t get much visitation so have retained their long-held traditions – so we can’t resist. It reminds me of when we explored the valleys of the Karakoram in Pakistan, but had to avoid the Talban-controlled Swat Valley.
Grozny has been rebuilt since the two Chechnyan wars and being 95% Muslim it’s very conservative – no smoking and no alcohol at all in the Republic. On every second corner stands a Chechnyan soldier with machine gun at the ready. On our walk around town we encountered a few who steered us back to areas we were allowed to wander. The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, referred to as the heart of Chechnya, is simply stunning and it was a real privilege to spend a few moments inside to admire its construct. Our cab driver charged us nothing because we were going to the mosque and people we encountered all mentioned Christchurch once they established we were from New Zealand. The reverberations of that event in the Muslim world have been shuddering.
Next – into the desert of northern Dagestan, another of Russia’s Muslim Republics, as we strike north towards the Volga delta. Riding up the western side of the Caspian, whose major feedstock is the Volga River, is searingly hot this time of year. At 20 metres below sea level the contrast with our riding in the Caucuses is stark. Fewer of the local men we see here sport the standard Chechnyan ginger bearded look, although the beard & no moustache regalia remains the most favoured. Hospitality is once again fantastic and stopping off at an oasis for some shade and a bowl of Borscht, we’re once again treated really well by all the truck drivers dropping by and sharing time at this lonely café.
And then into Kalmykia and the change is instant. No more beards and the people are now of Mongolian origin. We’ve been here before – in 2008 we stopped over in the Kalmykia capital of Elista en route west and were taken aback by the Buddhist temples being so far over this way. The Kalmyks came here from Mongolia in the 1700’s, were deported by Stalin to the gulags of the Siberian Far East and then brought back by Kruschchev. Theirs is a tortured relationship with Mother Russia. Still we were warned at night not to venture beyond the walls of our homestay because kidnappings are still rife here. We’re somewhat bemused by this concern because this is the Republic whose leader was the chess-mad authoritarian who famously claimed he’d been captured by aliens, entered their spacecraft and was hosted by “human-like creatures in yellow spacesuits”.
The newly appointed leader of this Republic on Russia’s southern steppe is a kickboxer, so perhaps under his tutelage things will be less surreal.