From Russia, With Something Less Than Love

Aug
20th
2010

SOCHI, RUSSIAN FEDERATION — Well, nobody said that being a tourist in Russia would be easy.

After our night out in Anapa, Miriam, Christian, and I got a late start and we headed east over rolling hills towards Russia’s main Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. As we rolled through the industrial blight ringing the hills of that city, along with thousands of trucks thundering down the pitted 4-lane highway, I was struck by the sheer immensity of all things Russian. I’d never even heard of Novorossiysk before, and here it took the better part of the afternoon just to get through it. Christian, coming from a landlocked country, insisted on a photo of the port.

Novoro-wha?

And then it was back onto the harrowing, truck-infested main road to Sochi. Christian and Miriam’s bike made short work of the many steep grades, whereas my Vespa strained in 3rd gear up some of the hills. We happened upon a pair of Russian scooterists broken down by the side of the road. They had sparkplug trouble, and I’ll confess to briefly considering keeping mum about the fact that yes, I had one last sparkplug that might fit. Where that impulse came from, I have no idea. Terrible, I know. I scolded myself and did the decent thing and they were up and running in no time.

Happy trails, boys

Somewhere around this time, we spotted a sign reading “Сочи 412KM”. This didn’t jibe with what my GPS was telling me, which was that Sochi was only 200km away. My GPS map of Russia, it turns out, was hilariously crudely drawn: the many twists and turns of the coastal road were represented by a long straight lines, whereas my actual GPS track was offset westwards by a kilometre or two and not very straight at all. Indeed, as a Couchsurfer I’d contacted in Sochi had warned me earlier, “The road becomes very curly.”

And so, we hunkered down and rode steadily for another several hours until our shadows streched out far ahead of us. The road reminded me of the Jadranska magistrala in Croatia, a winding coastal 2-laner that can be maddening if you find yourself stuck on it in high tourist season, and an absolute joy if you’ve got it all to yourself. This Russian riviera highway is in a different league altogether: unlike the Croatian road, the pavement is mostly in terrible shape, and it’s so choked with trucks that you’re lucky to get out of third gear.

Nice view along the way, though

None of us was particularly fond of driving at night, so we kept our eyes peeled for a place to sleep. At a conveniently located roadside ATM, there was a very large gate, behind which lurked a compound that looked suspiciously like it contained hot showers and beds with clean sheets. I strolled up to the security guard, determined that he spoke no English, and just for fun, no French or Hungarian, and I resorted to pointing beyond the gate and asking “Hotel?”

“No hotel,” he said. It really did look like a hotel back there, so I was persistent. I pointed again at this property he was guarding, and made the universal sleeeping sign, along with my best pleading expression.

“Da. Pensione,” he said. Aha. So there were beds in there. Grumbling, he let me in and I walked down a winding path to the main building. It was a large resort complex, and very new from the looks of it. (The name of the place, apparently, translates to “Holiday Green Guy ZRT”.) I entered the lobby and gently inquired if they had any rooms for the night. Here on the Russian Black Sea coast, when you inquire of people “do you speak English?”, nearly everybody gets this nonplussed look on their face as they struggle to determine what bizarre moon-man language is coming out of your mouth. You definitely feel like you’ve crossed a civilizational threshold when you enter this country. Anyway, I drew some elaborate diagrams on some scraps of paper to make it clear that we wanted two rooms for three people, and the receptionist finally understood what I wanted. She took my passport and gave me a price in rubles and I headed back up the hill to grab Christian and Miriam.

Fifteen minutes later we’d unloaded all of our gear, lugged it down the hill, and were down in the lobby, waiting. A while later the grim-faced receptionist sailed out from behind a door and handed me a mobile phone. “Hello?” I said.

The woman’s voice on the other end got straight down to business. “We are full,” it said.

“What do you mean?” I said. “The receptionist said she had two rooms for us, and took my passport.”

“We are full,” said the voice, and hung up. The receptionist and her colleague then stood in front of us with arms crossed. I explained to Christian and Miriam what I’d been told, and we stood there, struggling to understand what had happened. Minutes ago there was the promise of food, and showers, and warm beds. Christian, who I should mention normally goes about his travels wearing a beatific smile, explained to the receptionist via sign language that she was an idiot. I didn’t have many kind words for her either. We lugged our gear back up the hill, and then went about the long process of reloading our bikes. Meanwhile, the resort appeared half-empty, with only a few cars in the parking lot, so I was pretty sure the “we are full” line was a fib. Either they didn’t want some bug-encrusted bikers stinking up the joint, or they had a problem with Swiss people and Canadians. I’m still not sure what that was all about.

Holiday Green Guy Zrt: Not so interested in your business

I normally dislike driving in the dark, but what came next was actually a pleasant nighttime cruise down the coast. We stopped at a few more resort-like spots, all of which turned out to be childrens’ camps, so we pushed on. The road was one massive convoy of slow-moving trucks, and we wended our way down the moonlit coast at a leisurely pace. We were tired, and hungry, and filthy, and all those trucks precluded going fast, but somehow we all found ourselves very much in the so-called “zone”: it was just the road, and the next corner, and the one after that, and all those other niggling concerns and doubts that can haunt a person while riding simply evaporated. We made it to within 30km of Sochi and checked in to a guesthouse by the railway tracks.

The following day, we rolled in to Sochi. The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held there, and I have to say it’s an odd choice for the winter olympiad considering how the streets are lined with imported palm trees. It takes quite a while to get to the centre — the city itself sprawls along 80km of coast — and it’s very much on the grow, with evidence of breakneck real estate speculation everywhere you look.

Christian and Miriam had in their possession a visa to visit the nearby Russian enclave of Abkhazia. This geopolitical oddity is still technically in Georgia acording to the map, but since the Russians invaded it back in 2008 the mountainous region had been largely depopulated and transformed into a private fiefdom of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. I’d had my fill of renegade breakaway Russian quasi-republics back in Transdniester, so I took a pass. (Also, the border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper had been shut since the war, and since Georgia was my next destination, Abkhazia was out.) My only option was to hop the ferry from Sochi across the Black Sea to Trabzon, Turkey, and then ride northeast to Georgia from there.

I said so-long to Christian and Miriam, and thanked them for finally getting some use out of my video camera. Speaking of which, here’s a video of our ride down the coast:

My next chore was to get on that ferry to Turkey. I found the ticket office somehow — you have to love how an international ferry terminal has all its signage and schedules only in Russian — and plopped down a whopping $380 to get me and the Hamburglar across the Black Sea. Next stop was on the other side of the port, to the customs queue. There I struck up a conversation with Alain and Babeth, two French retirees who were on their way back from Mongolia in their Land Cruiser. Alain was amazed that I hadn’t yet been shaken down by the Russian fuzz, his favourite story being the one where a cop pulls you over, ostensibly to check your papers, then insists, in a spirit of international friendship, on having a shot of vodka with you. You oblige, then he sends you on your way, after which his partner a few clicks down the road pulls you over and gives you a breathalyzer test, which you of course have little hope in passing. And then you have to cough up a thousand bucks on pain of being thrown in the clink for a few weeks. “C’est incroyable,” Alain said with a laugh, over and over, about his experiences with petty officials while getting across Russia.

The iron gates to the customs area finally swung open, and a huge potbellied border guard in a peaked cap yelled at us to drive in. He walked up to me first. “Passport,” he said. His eyes were glassy and he reeked of booze. I handed it over, but made the mistake of leaving all my other papers — vehicle registration, insurance, etc. — in the passport. He looked at me, then down at all that extra documentation, then up at me again. He then opened the passport and ran through the pages like an animated flipbook, sending all my precious papers flying away in the gusting Black Sea breeze. I got off the bike and ran after them, collecting piece by piece all over the parking lot. I could hear the border guard and his colleagues having a good laugh at this. Funny, guys, I thought, real funny.

Once this guy had had his fun, we were then processed at emigration, where the guy who hands you the forms you have to fill out in duplicate actually yells at you to hurry the F up. After that, we had to do the customs check. I didn’t get it nearly as bad as Alain, who was beset upon by several inspectors who opened up every nook and cranny of his Land Cruiser and kept yelling at him to show “MEDICAMENT! MEDICAMENT!”. I was the last to be processed. A little wiry dude with an Elvis haircut and tinted glasses had to compare all of the registration numbers on the bike with what was on my documents. There was a chassis number, and a serial number, and the license plate number, and the serial number of the engine. “Seriously?” I said. “The engine serial number?”

“You not go Turkey until I see engine number.”

I got out my tools and started tearing the Hamburglar apart. I had no idea where the serial number was on the engine, and kept removing covers and guards and other pieces until the only possible next step would be to remove the engine from is mount. Still no sign of the engine number. There was another, bigger problem: the 14-digit chassis number was missing half of the last digit in the stamped metal. It could’ve been a 3, but then again it could’ve been an 8.

“You not go Turkey,” he said, and sauntered back inside the customs area. I stood there next to my dismantled bike, and watched in dismay as the ferry’s anchor was raised. I waited there alone on the pier for the little dude to return, which he eventually did. He was smiling.

“Have good trip to Turkey,” he said, and extended his hand. “Please,” he said, and I shook it, unsure as to what the hell was going on. Not only did I have to endure being jerked around by this mini-dictator, but I then had to make it seem like I enjoyed it? The similarities with 1984 and Catch-22 are so obvious that they hardly bear mention. Anyway, that last bizarre hurdle out of the way, I reassembled the bike with the hustle of a NASCAR pit crew and sped down the pier to the ferry. I barely made it aboard in time.

Turks strap the bike down in the ferry

I dropped my gear off in my superheated, windowless, 4-man cabin, grabbed a Turkish Efes beer at the canteen, and made my way to the roof deck where I found Alain and Babeth. They themselves were reeling from their own struggles getting out of Russia. We had a few laughs about what we’d just went through, and I then took a moment to record a fond farewell to the good officials of the Sochi International Ferry Terminal. Best of luck handling all the tourists at the Olympics!

Next stop: Turkey.


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