We woke fairly early and got packed up to go, the Polish couple joined us and we were ready to head up to the monastery. The guy got on the back of Matt’s bike and the girl onto Gleb’s, I was in no state to be taking people on the back. I was barely safe alone on Donkey on rough tracks. I have zero experience with anything rougher than gravel tracks and that’s about all Donkey is made to take too. We started off up through the village and onto the mountain. It got pretty rough pretty quick. A very uneven surface with deep ruts running along it, stretches of mud in deep pits, and that was only about 10 minutes in. We decided to keep pushing on until it got too tough to pass, rather than just awkward.
It did soften a bit out of the village, but then it came to the hairpins. The first one we came to we had to stop for something, poor planning meant I ended up stopped in an awkward spot on the inside of the turn. When we got moving again I fucked up and ended up angling myself across a ditch, loosing momentum and leaning down the ditch going too slowly. Donkey was too far over and I couldn’t catch him on the slippy ground so he had a rest on the floor for a bit. The most unglamorous crash ever. Given how slowly it had happened Matt and Gleb had already disappeared around a corner. Luckily there was a guy walking the hill just behind me and he helped me get him back up, with some struggle. Where I’d crashed meant we were lifting back up a steep rut. Cue 5 minutes of me trying to start him up again without resetting the ignition to prime the fuel pump again. Matt and Gleb came walking back to help but I realised my mistake before they even got there and we were off again. A broken right indicator means Donkey got his first injury and I got my first taste of crashing.
The rest of the road was a good challenge but passable eventually. I thought I was going over a few times again, especially on a long stretch of thick mud through deep holes, having to power out of a thick mud puddle up hill on road tyres will make your butt clench. It was good fun though and we made it to the top, knackered and happy. Then I realised we had to go back down again, which might be more of a challenge, braking on that rough ground and no acceleration to stabilize yourself. The view from the top was more than worth it though, in front was the entire town, a thousand or so meters below, each side was the valley, one leading to Russia about 20 miles away, the other leading back to Georgia. It was an awesome way to say goodbye to the country. I’m proud I made it up and down without any major problems, it was definitely Donkey’s limit, the bash plate took a battering from some of the steep pits and larger rocks I couldn’t avoid and the suspension was working overtime, even going as slow as we were. It was definitely my limit too, but now I’ve done it, I know much better what I can and can’t handle.
We had seen many “taxis” on the way up. Turns out if you want to regularly tackle a tough off road climb on a budget, the Mitsubishi Delicia is the van for the job, it looks ridiculous doing it, and we saw one inches from toppling over, but the town was full of them, so they must do OK. We got back to the hostel and gathered all our stuff up then had a nice break to recover from the climb. We said our goodbyes to Oki and Matt, they were heading back in to Georgia for their own routes, Matt heading West, Oki East.
We had expected it to take about an hour for the round trip, but it took us over 2. I had hoped to head for the Russian border as early as possible because I’d heard some horror stories about it and how long it can take. Gleb was also late leaving since he had 2 days to get home 2000km away, an insane distance per day even if you were leaving at sunrise. It was lunch time by the time we left. Gleb was planning to cross the border with me and try and smooth things out, speaking fluent Russian helps a lot. I warned him it could take me hours even with Russian help, and he should ride on as soon as I get held up, I’ll get through fine.
We headed off to the border and exited Georgia without a problem, then road maybe 2 miles through no mans land between borders in the middle of a very steep valley, I didn’t dare stop for photos but it was an amazing little ride. Unlit tunnels hewn out of the rock, not really maintained by either side, raging rapids either side of the road and steep rock face keeping everything in. We rolled up to the border and the weirdness began. There was a long queue but we got the attention of a guard and she directed us to the side to get us ahead, this often happens with bikes for some reason, partly because they don’t bother searching your luggage. They became a little irritated when they realised I wasn’t Russian, they thought I was just with Gleb and they’d be able to get us through quick. An important looking guy with a hat, many badges and a different colour uniform to everyone else came up and said hello, then asked to see my drivers license, fairly common, he took it and pocketed it, bugger, I can’t exactly just ask for it back. He said I’d get it back when my customs paperwork was done (and when money was in his pocket I assumed). My passport got handed around to different people too and ended up with a guy with no badge or uniform in a leather jacket. That is not a good sign, I stuck to him like a smell, he wasn’t going anywhere with it without me knowing. It turns out I had to go with this guy into the building for some “questions”, oh great. Gleb looked very confused and I had to give him my keys before I left so he could move the bikes out of the way.
A couple of guys sat me down and basically asked me a bunch of questions that were already answered on my paperwork, just trying to catch me out. They thought they were on to something when I couldn’t remember my employers address and needed my phone to look it up. “You don’t know where you work?” with a big grin. I explained I worked remotely and had never been to that office, but they employ me and his smile faded a bit when everything else lined up too. They wanted to know if any of my family or friends worked for “meefi” which took a few minutes to decipher, he meant “MI5” and was deadly serious. “errrrm no”. I had to stop myself saying “They probably couldn’t tell me if they did”, it was going to be no help joking around with them. Just answer the questions and GTFO. After about 20 minutes of back and forth and, for some reason, giving them my UK phone number, I was out. Gleb looked thoroughly confused why there was such a process, I think he was unfamiliar with border bureaucracy, but after seeing the trouble it had taken just to get my visa checked he refused to leave me and wanted to help. He was already very late so I tried to get him to go but he wasn’t having it.
The next step was customs, getting the bike registered into the country, I filled out the form, with some difficulty and then tried to find the important guy with my drivers license, I didn’t know his name or rank, just that he had a green suit and a hat. So I got a lot of funny looks and followed when I started wandering around the compound looking for him without being able to tell anyone who I was after. I finally spotted him coming out of an office, he smiled when I approached and I showed him the forms. He grabbed me and walked me down to the customs booth and started shouting at the guy, and put my paperwork on his desk, smiled at me again and left. Gleb had a big grin and just said “He’s helping you through, he just put you in front of everyone else” there was a big crowd of people looking displeased. Cool. I still don’t know why; we hadn’t bribed him, as I’d heard is pretty much a requirement, and we only chatted about the bikes for a second.
A lot of waiting and the important guy came back and shouted some more when he saw me still there. The guy in the booth grabbed my paperwork then indicated I needed 2, one for me one for him, so I ran off to fill it out again. More waiting then he invited me in to the booth to help organise everything and copy everything into the computer. Then he photocopied my documents. He had a bloody photocopier but he sent me off to fill out the damn form twice. It all got sorted with some coaxing though and then I had all the documents I needed. Me and Gleb ran for the bikes and headed for the exit, keen to get out before any more of my documents were held hostage. We exited without a problem and I was in Russia!
A quick stop to find some insurance, which was about 5 times quicker thanks to Gleb being able to tell them exactly what I needed and confirm details. Then we were off again. I was just following Gleb and we headed directly north, the SatNavs routed us onto a really bad road, it went straight north, rather than all the way around like the others, but it was so bad we could barely keep 40kph. It lasted about 5 miles and we both wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into, but then it was back to tarmac again, with no rhyme or reason we could see. We made pretty good progress from there and started looking for somewhere to eat around 5pm, though it was 6pm to us since we gained an hour crossing the border. We didn’t realise we were in a Muslim majority area though and most places weren’t serving food since it was Ramadan, so we pushed on, looking for somewhere on the road.
We climbed a little hill and at the peak there was a military checkpoint, only small but guarded and gated. We stopped and Gleb started chatting away, the guy was admiring the bikes and chatting, but then his tone changed. He got a bit agitated and Gleb gave me the “lets go now” look. So we spun around and left and started taking a different route since that road was closed. We found somewhere to stop for some food and Gleb explained that the road wasn’t closed. It was open, but only to Russians, since it passes through a military area, the guard wasn’t happy because he thought Gleb was trying to smuggle me in and I shouldn’t even be in the area anyway. I’ve no idea how we were supposed to know any of this, we never passed a sign.
I told Gleb he should go back and take that road to make some progress, it was only closed to me anyway, and the highway detour added at least 400km to his journey. He still refused though and said he’d stick with me today and we’d split tomorrow. I’m glad he did, because we ran in to about 5 more checkpoints, each more complicated than the last. One was just some guys with guns and a concrete hut. They checked all my paperwork for about 10 minutes cross referencing everything and getting hung up on the “0 bags to declare” when I had panniers and bags, even if they’ve got nothing in them to declare. Another required going into a booth and passing through a metal detector, which, with all the bike gear and 20 pockets is a bit of a farce, then having all the paperwork checked again. Gleb managed to sweet talk us out of a few “on the spot cash fines” somehow, even he didn’t know, if he hadn’t been there my wallet probably would have been a lot lighter afterwards, especially because I had no small notes. Being able to say I was born in Nottingham and supported Nottingham Forest (I couldn’t name you a single player….) helped though, since all the officers knew it and assumed I was a football nut since I was British.
We beat the checkpoints and got onto the highway. Turns out there’s a lot of checkpoints and military presence because all 3 southern regions have ongoing militia activity for various reasons. Once we got far enough north on the highway we didn’t see anymore and could make some real progress. Well we could, but the sun was setting, and as I was admiring the views, I noticed something up with Glebs luggage. It was lopsided, and then I remembered he had 2 exhausts, not 1, I couldn’t see the right one because his bag was covering it! Shit! STOOOOP. It had melted the bag entirely through where it was hitting it. Some wine he had in plastic bottles in his bag was super heated, pressurised in the bottles, which had heated so much they started to deform. So we carefully placed them at the side of the road like bombs. Some of the wine had leaked out , drenching his stuff, some Georgian sweets he had bought had cooked into what looked like burned strands of sausage. After a tiring day, stood at the side of the motorway sorting through his bag and cleaning it with bottled water we both just cracked up laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.
We did a another couple of hours until it got properly dark and a little dangerous to be riding, pulled off the highway into a town and searched for a hotel. We found one pretty quickly that we’re pretty sure you could pay per hour in, had leopard print sheets and some very scantily dressed women admiring the bikes. Never mind, we just need a bed. We grabbed a room and found a cafe for some supper. Our brains were pretty muddled by the time we finished a beer after dinner. Riding for about 14 hours, 3 of it riding up a mountain, 3 through rough Russian roads and traffic, 3 spent at a border post, at least 2 wasted standing around at checkpoints and then the rest on highways. I intended on doing around 700km, while Gleb intended on 1000km. After the delays, doubling back and detours, we essentially did about 200km, not even in the right direction.
I think it is up there as the most ridiculous day of the trip, but it wasn’t the most challenging, everything could have gone a hell of a lot worse. I made it into Russia without being arrested, fined, shot, mugged or relieved of my cash by police. Which I knew were all on the cards when I planned the route. Almost entirely thanks to Gleb, a guy I’d met only 3 days before, who didn’t speak much English and ended up missing a day of work because he was escorting me through his country. What a legend. I don’t think I’ll meet many people like that on this trip, or after it.