London to Magadan – On the road with the Road of Bones Expedition 2018 #2 – by Allana Goldsworthy Back to News List

Road of Bones – 2018 CHAPTER TWO

Story by Allana Goldsworthy

Images – Allana Goldsworthy, Azar Farahmand, Hugo Penasco, Bayne Morison and Dennis Grothues.

Our time in Tblisi, Georgia, passed all too quickly – we enjoyed our couple of nights in our comfortable hotel, in this quirky capital.

Massive thunderstorms rolling over Tblisi in the evening were a precusor to the day ahead. Although we only had to travel 150 kms today -we had to incorporate our first border crossing into Russia.
So we had fair warning of weather and mood challenges ahead for the day.
To be safe – we pulled on our waterproof jackets – and 3 kms on our way out of town it bucketed down. We stopped again and donned our waterproof pants. Duh – don’t know why we didn’t do this from the outset.
Then another 3-4 kms of drenching rain, and I retreated to the van for a break – also meaning Paul could concentrate on riding in difficult conditions without worrying about me.
We were travelling on the Georgia Military Highway – this is the only road through the Caucasus mountain range to Russia. 198 kms of road. In 1783, 800 soldiers managed to turn what had been a horse track into a road., The scenery was magical – the roads not always so. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world.
Potholes, tricky visibility, and quite a bit of traffic. As we got up to the higher points- the cloud lifted, and I returned to the bike. We wound our way round bends and turns, past ski resorts to the peak. The Jvan Pass. Where our views were somewhat reduced due to cloud. And the roadside stalls selling, amongst other knickknacks, boofy hats with Daniel Boone type tails, made from sheep skin. Tempting to buy one as a novelty, – but with the weather conditions. wearing in effect a wet sheep on your head was not appealing.
We observed as we neared the Russian border – that the narrow gorge which was the horrific scene in 2014 when the pass was closed due to a massive landslide, killing a number of unfortunate people, was still bearing testament to the tragedy. We could see the mangled truck wrecks sticking out of the rubble,
The tour that year had to sit out a week of waiting, and attempted alternative route being planned, only to find that the route had been promptly cleared and re-opened.
The border has had a chequered history – quite apart from the landslide issue. In 2006 the Russians just closed the border. No doubt due to prickly relationships between Georgia and Russia, and it was not opened again until 2013 .The Russians still take perverse pleasure in making it hard for the Georgians though, thus resulting in the huge queues of trucks waiting to get into Russia.
Getting out of Georgia was a piece of cake. But then we approached the Russian border. There was a line of about 50 trucks waiting. Looked as though they would be there for a week or more, I had counted at least 80 trucks parked in a line further back – with a police car across the road, no doubt allowing them to go through just a few at a time.
We had arrived there before lunch – and all up it took the best part of 6 hours, including obtaining bike insurances from a guy with the dickiest WiFi connection you could imagine. He would enter information, and then it would have to reboot. Every time.
Paul’s application took about an hour. Multiply this by 17 bikes – fortunately not all of them took this long.
But, going back to the border itself. We presented passports – and were then given a form to fill in. Twice.
The good news for us was that they were in English. Compared to an earlier trip where they were only in Cyrillic, and a very unhelpful woman, if asked to check if they were ok -would read – then exclaim “Nyet!”and rip the form up.
So, we filled out the forms, including, as always , our father’s names. Must be some relevance somehow.,
We then had to present these through a teeny tiny window – so low that you had to bend right down to your thighs to squeak ‘hello’ through to the mysterious hands that reached forward to pluck the passport and form from you.
After quite a wait, and some confusing Russian/English conversations, it was determined that I did not need to fill in the form, and I left Paul to wrangle with the mysterious set of hands.
As luck would have it – there was on duty this day a very pleasant senior type man – nicknamed (by me) as Boris. Boris was extremely helpful and friendly. We had anticipated the worst – and were pleasantly surprised. But the hard won Russian visas had been the cause of much angst – and to have no issues getting over the border was a real relief.
We had noticed that one of our group, who has a nationality that does not require a visa , and who had arrived before us, was nowhere to be seen. His bike was parked there for the whole time we were being processed. We considered and decided it was prudent not to make an issue of this. As he had travelled to Russia on many other occasions, we felt he would have this under control.
When he did catch up to us, his delay was due to the authorities carrying out some spot audits, and the language issue caused substantial delay.
We continued on, to Vladikavkaz. This place was super amazing. We discovered a light, bright, vibrant city. Buzzing – as it was National Day in Russia
Great timing. Our monolithic hotel the Vladikavkaz Hotel – is undergoing refurbishment, and Paul and I were lucky to have one of the tarted up rooms. With views across to a beautiful park, and to the stunning Mukhtarov Sunni Mosque. (Named after the Azerbaijani millionaire who financed its construction – well that only seems fair!) Whilst this city is very western – there is quite a strong Islam community as well. The city has been the scene of three horrific terrorist attacks in 1999 (55 killed in an explosion), 2008 (12 killed in a bus bombing), 2010 (17 killed in a market explosion) . We were on alert.
But when we wandered out of our hotel – and, in direct contravention of the “guides to safe travel in dangerous places” – went down to join the throng for the National Day concert – we were absolutely a part of the celebration. Families and locals everywhere, and to get into the acutal area where there was a concert and food stalls, we were screened by security. Probably one of the safest places to be.,
We ate delicious local pastries, watched as the local mayor/governor and assorted important people were escorted to their prime seats and listened to most of the first musical piece that was perhaps a little too Russian and nationalistic to get one’s foot tapping to the tune.
So we headed back through the large parkland – which was filled with buskers, performers and families. The weather was quite balmy. We ate at the hotel – ordering via sign language (no Paul did not have to do his chook impression this time) and did very well. The food was the best we had eaten for quite a while.
As you may gather – there were no tourists around, only locals. The bikes continue to hold real attraction for people – who hoot and honk their horns, or strike up conversations, and take photos of the bikes and with the bikes. The sheer number causes attention, and can also assist in tricky official situations. The reaction of people when they understand we are on our way to Magadan is consistent – they shake their heads!
So, we are heading further into Russia from here – northwards towards Moscow!
We have only a couple of places left on the next expedition departure in may 2020. Get in quick if you would like to experience this life changing adventure.
Stay tuned to our blog and social media posts for Allana’s next edition to their journey from London too Magadan.
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