After an amazing time in Racha with our friends, March was rapidly approaching, and our visa-free year in the Georgia was coming to an end. With travel options being limited, our desire to see family again, and for Anya to have a chance to work again in tourism, we opted to apply for a family visa for myself so we could return to Kamchatka for 3 months in Spring. We applied through the Russian visa centre in Tbilisi, which was surprisingly smooth, however they did take my passport for a few days which caused some inconvenience.
We planned to cross the Kazbegi border and take a domestic Russian flight to Kamchatka via Moscow, as this would be much less expensive and less prone to cancellations than the equivalent international route.
Leaving our car with our trusted friend Sopo in Tbilisi, we organised a ride to Stepantsminda, stayed in a super friendly guest house, and then a second ride in a local Delica taxi to the border. Out of the car about 50 meters from the checkpoint, we dragged our bags and skis to line up between the cars. This border obviously did not cater to foot traffic! We quickly passed inspection and entered no-man's land. Just as we were about the exit the Georgian border checkpoint area a soldier with a serious face and a serious gun stopped us from walking any further, informing us that the road with tunnels was impassable for us.
The only option remaining to us now was to hitch-hike the several remaining kilometers to the Russian border. With our thumbs up, several fully laden cars and trucks passed us by, some smiles, some frowns. Eventually a small track (known in Russian as a "Gazelle") stopped in front of us. A man with a friendly round face and a big smile stepped down and invited us to put our stuff in the back, which was empty after having delivered tea to Tbilisi. Anya sat in the front and I sat in the back.
We learned that his name was Alan, he was from Ossettia. He was proud of his new looking sound system, and was rocking some great Russian and Ossetian tunes, with the video screen in the centre console showcasing the latest music videos. I listened to he and Anya chatting about his life and family. Close to the Russian border we pulled to a stop behind a long traffic jam. At some point some desperate looking folks came knocking on our window to ask us to take some alcohol for them across the border (there is a limit per person). Alan showed us his passport, he had obviously made the crossing many times before for his work, it was filled with border stamps! We pulled into the Russian border control, and Alan waved hello to his guard friends as we jumped out to get our passports inspected.
It became obvious that my crossing would be an unnusual event, there were very few foreigners like me making the crossing at this border now due to the COVID situation and the lack of tourist visas. The man at the window called his superior officer, and it was established that there were no English translators on hand. Anya and I were taken for a walk across the tarmac and through several electronic locked doors into a concete building for questioning in a room without windows. I felt immediately sorry for Alan who would now need to wait for us with our bags in his truck, he had already been waved through.
We were directed to sit seperately on a stool in each corner of the room. The border guard officer puffed calmly on his e-cigarette as he slowly punched details into the system with a single finger on the mechanical keyboard. He directed pointed questions towards Anya, and so she did an admirable job translating. Questions such as "What is your father's name?", "What is your Mother's occupation?", "What is your father's birthday?". At this point I couldn't for the life of me remember it under pressure! He raised an eyebrow as I flustered and reached for my phone to check the calendar. He asked "You have a bad relationship with your father?", Anya probably tried to explain that I usually had a bad memory for such things!
Eventually the officer was satisfied, but not before taking our phones and entering a code to display the IME numbers. He told us that a couple of Americans had crossed the border and gone missing, and they wanted to be sure where we were going. I was not even aware of the functionality to do that, it was quite a surprise!
Alan was still very kindly waiting for us after our hour long interview. He offered to continue to drive us to Vladikavkaz, the city where he lived. As the driving progressed we noticed that the line of trucks waiting to cross into Georgia was extremely long, it did not finish until we were almost in the city. Alan informed us that the drivers had been waiting for several months to make the crossing, which had been closed due to ice and avalanches blocking the high pass near Gudauri. There is currently a tunnel being constructed which should hopefully alleviate this problem in the future. It certainly does not seem like an easy life living on the side of the road in a truck cab for months at a time.
Alan very kindly dropped us off at our AirBnB for the night, but not before insisting that he would meet us later to take us out to dinner to taste the best Ossetian food in town. We couldn't refuse such an offer, and before long he rocked up in his Mercedes looking fresh and we joined him for an excellent dinner with Ossetian pies! In the morning Alan once again overwhelmed us with his generosity, bringing us another extremely tasty freshly baked pie that he had driven halfway across the city to obtain for us, before driving us to the airport. We hid some money under his jacket before jumping out, as he had already refused our attempts to renumerate him.
The flight to Moscow was easy, but the airport shuttle to our hotel was non-existent, we spent several hours attempting to find it, without a working Russian sim card, and all the taxi prices were completely unreasonable for a 5 minute ride. We finally succumbed to an outrageously expensive taxi ride, only to learn at the hotel that we could have walked! Anya's friends Anya and Sveta were transiting through at the same time as us, on their way to a ski mountaineering competition. We met them in the terminal, there was much emotion, running and shouting, it was a happy reunion. Afterwards they joined us in our hotel room next to the airport to catch up, watch some videos and have a good time.
We landed in Yelisovo, Kamchatka in extreme snow storm conditions, our arrival was timed with the biggest (not large by Kamchatka standards) storm of the season. I couldn't see anything out the window during touchdown! As the plane touched down, the chief flight attendant announced three times my name and that I needed to meet someone before exiting the aircraft, a bit embarassing! At the door, a local policeman or FSB representative asked me why I was in Kamchatka, evidently foreigners were in short supply here also, and my coming was an unnusual event. We managed to provide a satisfactory answer, and he was very friendly. We met Anya's mum and her friend Natasha, Natasha drove us back to the city in her 4WD.