Traditionally Russians celebrate the Winter season, as a festival, and only recently have started celebrating Christmas like North Americans. Now like at home they celebrate Christmas each to their own level of Christian belief. They also still celebrate the old festival too, with old man winter and all the traditions that go along with it. Then comes New Years, followed by Russian New Year. All in all, this makes it a very busy time as Russians love to visit and mingle. So we added a little more to this festive season getting married in December. So we have plans for some big parties at home in Anapa and then in Ossetia before going to Moscow to celebrate Russian New Year. After that the warmth of South East Asia beckons, and will be home for a few months.
So I once again found myself needing to do a visa run to allow enough time to do this and not have to fly on Christmas Eve. Inga is still waiting for her external visa to be renewed so I didn’t want to go anyplace far without her so we decided to run home to her parents little village outside of Vladikavkaz and her brother Jim and I would go to Georgia for the day.
The trip to Georgia is only about an hour from the big city and is a wonderful drive. The road is very modern and reminded me of the Sea to Sky highway of the 80’s but with much more beautiful scenery. Growing up in British Columbia kind of jaded me for beautiful mountains, or so I thought. This area of Russia is truly beautiful, and barring the bloody history and Ministerial warnings I’ve already talked about should really be on a person's bucket list.
The white clouds circle the area around the city as the highway snakes out of the Soviet style buildings south towards the border. The wide road is new and shiny black with dew and mist that seems to be a constant blanket over the area. Watching the road and looking up the hills, turned golden with winter's approach, my eyes are drawn to a sharp, jagged cloud. Only then to I realize that the clouds the ring the city stop and are replaced by a majestic crown of white peaks.
We arrived at the border proper and it was a relaxed sort of affair. The mountains were very close together here and mixed. By mixed I mean, coastal style hills with interior mountains slammed up against The Rockies, all in the course of five kilometers. It was surreal for me having lived my whole life in the coastal mountain range.
The Russian machine was in full swing and moved those of us that could follow lines and directions along in an efficient and quick manner. Many, unable to follow directions, were yelled at by a bear of a man that seemed completely amazed that Russians have challenges with lineups. Having traveled and lined up with Russians, I found this hard to believe as even as a newcomer this challenge was not lost on me.
Unlike at home you and your passenger get out of your car and approach the booth on foot under the watchful eyes of border officers. They then check your car as a person in the booth checks your paperwork. I had Jim with me so I didn’t try to interact and just relaxed and played the dumb tourist, and in ten minutes we were on our way.
The “no man's land” or border zone between the Georgian and Russian border is vast. I didn’t check the odometer to get an exact number, but it was close to five kilometers. This part of the road was in poor repair and made the going slow along the river. In the hills along the journey I saw large bunkers with obvious camouflage and “scope flashes” from more concealed watchers. This reminded me that tensions between the two countries, that used to be one, were far from relaxed.
We arrived at the Georgian border and Jim told me that I had to go inside and pass customs as only drivers were allowed to remain in the car. He smiled, at my obvious nervousness, and remarked that I need not worry they’d speak English.
They did not speak any English. They were not as nice as their Russian counterparts either. They had picked up that rather annoying American habit of saying something louder when it was obvious the person speaking with you didn’t understand the language, as if by raising your voice would suddenly make the person fluent in your tongue. I pulled a Canadian habit, smiled widely and said sorry for not being able to speak Georgian. This was understood and relaxed the situation a bit and the officer asked if I spoke Russian. I smiled wider still and replied that I spoke a little Russian but better hand signals. This actually brought I smile to the officer's face and he said, “back” in Russian while gesturing to a web camera style device on his desk. I stepped back and he moved the camera gesturing me to remain still.
Picture took he asked if I had any guns or weapons and these gestures were entertaining the people behind me bemoaning their decision to get in my line. Then he made the international sign of money, fingers rubbed together, and I was a little confused if I was being asked for a bribe so obviously or if the visa on arrival policy had changed and now cost money. I said I didn’t understand in Russian, and he thought for a second and said; “You how vino buy?” I had told him earlier we had come to Georgia to try their world famous wine. So I pulled out my wallet and from it my black Visa card and his eyes showed surprise and he nodded, stamped my passport and handed it back saying; “Welcome.”
I met Jim on the other side of the border and he said his experience was fine and looked surprised when I said they didn’t speak English. We maneuvered through the throng on people trying to re-board busses and mini vans and I thanked my luck at having a private driver.
Jim had discovered that the border closed at four so we didn’t have much time to sightsee as planned, but still made the time to drive through the first town to the countryside to see the view. It was an incredible view and worth the trip, but Gori and the Inga’s birthplace and family village home would have to wait unless we, as Jim suggested, wanted to spend the night. I had been away too much as of late and really wanted to be “back home” in Russia and my beautiful wife so that part of the trip and your story about it will have to wait till August next year.